A NASA spacecraft launched Thursday has a remarkable and near-impossible mission: to strike an asteroid and knock it off track so Earth can save itself from its gaseous travel path.
The 3,200-pound spacecraft, called the Deep Space Interior Exploration Spectrometer, went off on its risky 2.5-year mission Thursday.
“It’s an astounding capability,” one of its mission managers, Joel Staniszewski, said at a briefing on the launch. “We think it’s one of the most demanding missions ever undertaken by the United States government.”
After launch from Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft separated from its booster and headed back on course for the asteroid Bennu, which is a year away.
But first, the spacecraft, weighing 3,200 pounds, will have to crash into the 1,600-foot wide asteroid before the asteroid approaches Earth.
Although blasting an asteroid with an impactor may seem like a crazy idea, some scientists argue it’s a worthy venture.
They say Bennu poses an astronomical threat to Earth, and that a collision is the best means of deflecting it – one that many scientists argue was implied by NASA in a 2010 press release.
NASA created a plan to impact the asteroid about 2,300 feet below Bennu’s surface, deflecting the asteroid’s path about 160,000 miles over the course of 7 years.
But, there’s only one way to do it: to crash into the asteroid at point-blank range, with the spacecraft facing the Earth. And to do that, NASA designed a robotic spacecraft to do it.
But NASA’s extreme doomsday adventure has sparked a bit of political controversy, since more than a few people suggest it’s risky to take such action at this point, with the world’s stock markets having just been pummeled by a few days of massive sell-offs.
Of course, the asteroid’s destructive power as well as Earth’s protector role were meant to be more than a little alarming to the public. And in fact, the response from the public was so negative to the asteroid threat that some scientists started making jokes about it.
They included this tweet:
Then again, there was also this tweet, noting that their ultimate success of the mission was still important:
But it’s clear that NASA took the idea seriously. And they are putting serious effort into the idea that scientists are up to the task of stepping in and smashing a small, potentially huge asteroid head-on to protect Earth.