NASA is set to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid. Here’s what you need to know

As part of its ongoing pursuit of a manned mission to Mars, NASA plans to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid in 2021.

On Tuesday, agency officials announced they will blast the probe off the spacecraft carrier flight that is built to carry it to asteroids. The probe will hit the asteroid “to search for water and volatiles on the surface, determine the internal structure and magnetic field of the asteroid, and characterize it for potential future space missions,” NASA said in a statement.

“We’ve been studying asteroids for over 100 years, but this is the first time we will intentionally slam one of them into the surface of the moon or another body like Mars to learn more about these surface hazards,” Anthony Colaprete, principal investigator for the mission, said in the statement.

The mission is called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).

It will use its coronagraph, a large telescope developed in the 1990s that is also used to block other telescopes, to block the asteroid’s light on Nov. 13, 2021, three days before its predicted impact. The device will send the asteroid’s wavelengths on another trajectory, hitting the moon four days after its planned impact point.

What exactly happens next is still unknown, but experts told NASA that “Earth would likely avoid any direct harm” even if the asteroid collided with Earth.

Why is this mission important?

Asteroids are one of the most difficult planetary hazards that the world faces, according to NASA, because they have been inhabited for thousands of years, created chemistry that could show up on Earth, and could show up on asteroids that humans would encounter. Experts know that they could survive on the surface for hundreds or thousands of years after impact.

“A close encounter with a potentially hazardous asteroid is extremely useful for different reasons. It boosts our asteroid science capabilities, and the space agency can learn a lot about that object by studying its composition and structure,” the agency said.

In 2016, NASA ordered a robotic mission that will actually go to the asteroid in 2020 to collect information about its composition. The mission, called OSIRIS-REx, will also return samples to Earth in 2023, providing information on more than 80,000 asteroids.

NASA established AIDA in 2016 to form a permanent mission dedicated to exploring the asteroids.

When was this asteroid identified?

Known as Bennu, the space rock is about 1,640 feet in diameter. Bennu is believed to have icy plumes that could be harboring water, a potentially valuable resource for the future of human travel.

Will NASA observe the crash?

NASA will maintain a command and control node on the moon, so it will be able to observe the impact from that location.

“Earth would likely avoid any direct harm” from the impact, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“Earth does not interact with Earth-sized asteroids because our orbital path intersects only about halfway. In contrast, our observations with the [AIDA mission] would show that an Earth-size asteroid would affect us, and therefore possible damage to the planet or even a large impact, like the one on impact in Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, could be averted by precautions,” senior study author Brian Conley, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Florida State University, said in the statement.

This story was reported and written by Emily Heil, Marwa Eltagouri, Carrie Frolich, Annie Gowen, Allison Sherry, Ann Grevatt, John Hendel, Mike Glenn, Colleen Dougher, Aaron Blake, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Marianne Goodland, Laura Litvan, Matt McFarland, Sam Levin, Adriana Fernandez, Bruno Platte, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Michelle Boorstein, Laura Northrup, Terrence Doppelt, Henry Pipkin, Justin Rice, Howard Amos, Paul Rogers, Matthew Rosenberg, Robyn So, Catherine Balsamo, Bree Fowler, Carolyn Crimmins, Adam Taylor, Georgina Hebert, Claire Barrington, Alan Frank, Colleen Low, Catherine Keating, Matthew Johnson, Andrew Smark and Emily Pietrofanelli.

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