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Colorado scientist included in NASA's first-ever mission to redirect the path of an asteroid

A spacecraft will intentionally crash into the side of an asteroid to shift its orbit.

BOULDER, Colo. — NASA is launching a mission that will intentionally crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to redirect its path.

It’s the agency’s first-ever attempt, and University of Colorado Boulder (CU) aerospace engineering associate professor Jay McMahon is one of the participating scientists on this mission.

CU is one of the partners of a project called DART, or Double Asteroid Redirect Test, which will test the capability of deflecting an asteroid and altering its orbit.

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“This is a mission where there’s a binary asteroid system, which means there [are] two asteroids that orbit each other, and we’re going to test our capability of deflecting an asteroid and changing its orbit by hitting the smaller of the two asteroids,” McMahon said.

Credit: NASA

DART launches late Tuesday night aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket leaving from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. McMahon said he got involved with the project through a proposal opportunity that NASA had for this mission.

“They have a Participating Scientists program,” he said. “So, they invite people from the community to write proposals to see if they could be involved to help the science of the mission.”

Credit: NASA

According to NASA, the DART spacecraft is about the size of a small car and will be traveling at about 15,000 miles per hour, or 4 miles per second. DART’s target is the binary asteroid system Didymos, which is made up of a larger asteroid named Didymos which is 2,500 feet in diameter and a smaller, orbiting asteroid named Dimorphos that’s 525 feet in size.

Credit: NASA

“If something that big were coming towards us, we would want to deflect it,” McMahon said. “By making a crater, it will impact …it will basically provide some momentum to the asteroid and then change how its moving.”

This method is called kinetic impact deflection and is one of several proposed ways to redirect potentially dangerous asteroids.

“It’s actually pretty rare that any asteroid of substantial size comes very close to Earth,” McMahon said. “In this case, this asteroid is not coming near the Earth, there’s no danger, but we’re just testing to see what could happen if we ever had to do it, so that’s why it’s a re-direct test.”

Credit: Byron Reed
CU Boulder aerospace engineering professor Jay McMahon

McMahon said he’s excited for the launch and is thankful for the attention the mission is getting to get more people interested in space.

“As an educator, I get a lot of value out of influencing other people and getting other people excited about space,” he said. “And about all the interesting science and engineering problems that go with it.”

You can see more details about the mission on NASA's website.

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