Get ready. We're testing a way to stop SMOD, but for real

If your default plan to escape the political chaos of the current era was to hope that the Sweet Meteor of Death (SMOD) would come along and wipe us out like the dinosaurs, you may have some bad news in store. The brain trust at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland is working with NASA to develop a plan that could deflect a sizable asteroid enough to miss the Earth if it’s on a collision course.

Unlike the Bruce Willis movie involving nuclear warheads or the delicate plans to orbit an incoming menace with a “gravity tractor”, this team is working on DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test). Taking a somewhat less subtle approach, they’re planning to launch a probe that will simply (?) smash into the incoming asteroid when it’s still far enough out to make a difference and deflect it from a collision trajectory. (Baltimore Sun)

A team of scientists, astronomers and engineers meets weekly in a conference room on a Howard County research campus and plans to save the world.

“Keep calm and carry DART,” reads a poster on the wall.

DART — the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is their plan to avert catastrophe. It’s also NASA’s first mission not to explore space, but to defend against it.

The research team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel plans to launch a spacecraft, speed it up really fast and smash it into an asteroid. BOOM!

The impact, they hope, will bump the big space rock off course — actually more like nudge it slightly. Someday, the thinking goes, this method may save humans from the fate of the dinosaurs.

In theory, this sounds pretty good. Asteroids and other menaces from space operate solely based on the influence of gravity. They travel in a predictable path once you can identify them and track them well enough. If you can smash some body of mass into them at an angle it will deflect their trajectory. It may not be much, but assuming you caught the rock with enough warning you could, in theory, nudge its orbit a fraction of a degree and over a period of months or years it would alter the trajectory enough to miss the Earth. Cool, eh?

Of course, there’s a bit of a snag in this plan. You would not only have to know the precise orbit of the object, along with it’s velocity and mass, but you’d need to be able to hit it in precisely the right spot like a shot on a pool table. The test object they are firing at is the “moon” of an asteroid named Didymos. By their own admission, NASA won’t even be able to see this rock until they are one hour away from it. And then, transmitting commands that take a long time to reach the craft, they will have to make the final adjustments to the trajectory to pull this off.

If it works… great! Humanity is saved. But if they’re off by even a little bit, they might take a dangerous asteroid that could have been a slim miss and send it crashing into California. For all we know, if they screw up their shot at this orbiting moon of Didymos, they could knock it into a new orbit that could strike us in a few hundred or thousands of years.

So your astrophyisicists are working on the problem, folks. Be of good cheer. But given the tremendous distances and incredible odds, my money is still on SMOD.