Washington D.C., United States—NASA has just approved the first anti-asteroid mission for planetary defence.

The asteroid deflection technology is now undergoing the final design and assembly phases. It is expected to be operational in the near future.

Designed, built, and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) purposes to test the “kinetic impactor technique.” This technique is designed to strike an incoming asteroid and shift its orbit, saving Earth from a catastrophic impact.

For its culmination test, DART will target Didymos, a binary asteroid system that comprised of Didymos A (about 1.5 miles wide) and Didymos B (about 500 feet wide). The test is scheduled for the middle of 2021.  The proposed plan will see DART flying to Didymos and the using its onboard targeting system—a space gun—to redirect Didymos B.

DART is the size of a small car. But its onboard technology ensures that size doesn’t matter. DART will utilise the kinetic impact technique.  It will endeavour to make minuscule changes to the orbital speed of Didymos B. An Earth-based station will observe the results by calculating any distance variation between the two asteroids. The APL scientists hope that DART’s technology will inform Earth’s asteroid mitigation strategy.

Johns Hopkins scientists Andrew Rivkin and Andrew Cheng are leading the DART program.

“With DART, we want to understand the nature of asteroids by seeing how a representative body reacts when impacted, with an eye toward applying that knowledge if we are faced with the need to deflect an incoming object,” said Andrew Rivkin, co-leader of the DART project.

“In addition, DART will be the first planned visit to a binary asteroid system, which is an important subset of near-Earth asteroids and one we have yet to fully understand,” added Rivkin.

In 2016, NASA established the Planetary Defence Coordination Office (PDCO). Its mandate is to assess and develop anti-asteroid capabilities. Moreover, it is designated to discover, track, and assess potential comet and asteroid threats in the vicinity of Earth. In the event of an emerging threat, the PDCO will develop plans for the threat’s neutralisation.

Recently, the White House released its “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan.” The document describes what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NASA will do over the next decade to shield Earth from an asteroid collision.

“This plan is an outline not only to enhance the hunt for hazardous asteroids, but also to better predict their chances of being an impact threat well into the future and the potential effects that it could have on Earth,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer.