Straight Out of Armageddon: NASA Tests Asteroid Impact Before Crashing Spacecraft Into One
Experts walked through a fictional asteroid planning exercise at the International Academy of Astronauts Planetary Defense Conference 2021 in Vienna this week
When it comes to protecting Earth, NASA doesn't "wanna miss a thing."
The space agency is currently working on a mission that will test whether scientists can change the motion of an asteroid in space — a project reminiscent of the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon.
Though Armageddon focused on an attempt to blow up an asteroid before it wiped out life as we know it on planet Earth, NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is taking a different approach.
"The mission aims to shift an asteroid's orbit through kinetic impact – specifically, by impacting a spacecraft into the smaller member of the binary asteroid system Didymos to change its orbital speed," NASA said in a press release.
The goal is for the DART spacecraft to purposely crash into the smaller asteroid Dimorphos as it orbits around Didymos, hopefully altering its orbital period by several minutes and giving scientists on Earth enough time to observe and measure it using telescopes.
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Though the DART spacecraft launch window was originally slated for this July, it was recently pushed back — though the kinetic impact test is still scheduled to happen on or around Oct. 1, 2022.
Meanwhile, scientists from around the globe got another peek at what it might look like should an asteroid pose a threat to Earth at the International Academy of Astronauts Planetary Defense Conference 2021 in Vienna this week.
The bi-annual conference is meant to unite experts from around the globe to talk about the threat asteroids and comets might pose to Earth, and how we can be better prepared should one arise.
Scientists spent the week working on a planetary defense exercise, a completely fictional scenario meant to help them develop a plan for the possibility of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature, we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when," Lindley Johnson, NASA's Planetary Defense Officer, said in a statement. "These exercises ultimately help the planetary defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future."
In the case of this year's exercise, scientists were initially told that an asteroid was found on April 19, and may hit Earth on Oct. 20.
Though the probability of impact was initially said to be just 1 in 2,500, as the days went by, that probability increased to 100 percent as more "information" about the asteroid was discovered.
Fictional updates said the asteroid would likely affect more than 580,000 people in central Europe, and that its entry velocity would be 34,000 mph.
As the experts worked through what a plan might look like, takeaways listed on the conference site included the fact that a "short-warning scenario poses extreme challenges for in-space mitigation."
"The large end of the estimated size range becomes the dominant factor in a scenario: capabilities that can put an upper bound on the size would be invaluable," the exercise said. "Precoveries could play a major role in assessing the impact probability of a threatening object, and in helping to constrain the impact location."
Just like DART, the exercise echoed the plot of Armageddon closely. In the hit film, a group is sent on a tenuous mission to dispose of a dangerous asteroid that's heading for Earth. Armageddon was directed by Michael Bay and stars Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, whose father, Steven Tyler, sang the soundtrack anthem, Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."
The film approached the disposal of an asteroid a bit differently than NASA — their plan was to drill a deep shaft into the asteroid and explode in two it using a nuclear weapon.
Though our heroes face obstacles along the way, they (spoiler alert for a 23-year-old movie!) of course get the job done, though not without losing a few key crew members along the way.
The nightmare of a catastrophic threat from an asteroid was explored in another 1998 film: Deep Impact — starring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell and Morgan Freeman — was released in May 1998, prior to Armageddon's release that July.
Despite their plot similarities, both hit No. 1 at the box office, with Deep Impact eventually making $359 million, and Armageddon topping it with $553 million, per The Hollywood Reporter.
If NASA's news makes you nostalgic for the films, you can stream them now, with Deep Impact playing on Amazon Prime, and Armageddon available to rent via Google Play, Apple TV and Amazon Prime.