NASA worried about ‘city killer’ asteroids

RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. (KTXL) – NASA scientists are worried about killer asteroids that may be headed for Earth.

The type of asteroid NASA is worried about is much smaller than the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and it crashes into Earth more frequently.

These asteroids are about several hundred feet or less in diameter and several have crashed in remote areas within the last century, devastating huge swaths of territory.

“City-killer asteroids,” explained Joe Cassady, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s executive director of space. “Not something that would threaten all life on Earth but certainly would be of concern if it was headed toward New York or Sacramento.”

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Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has had a presence in Rancho Cordova, California for decades, is involved in a project that aims to deflect asteroids from their path to Earth.

NASA and the Applied Physics Lab of John Hopkins University will be launching a spacecraft next year aimed at a pair of asteroids 7 million miles away. The project is called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is supplying a conventional rocket engine for the project, as well as a unique solar-powered ion engine to make the 14-month journey.

The Didymos asteroids the project is targeting aren’t a threat to Earth, but DART will make a collision course toward the smaller 550-foot diameter rock.

“This idea of just slamming this spacecraft into this asteroid and see if we can divert it a little bit off of its path,” Cassady said.

The DART spacecraft isn’t huge, weighing just over 1,000 pounds, but it will be traveling at over 15,000 mph.

Theoretically, it won’t take much of an impact to alter the course of the asteroid, according to Cassady.

“Believe it or not, we make a difference of a few centimeters per second in their velocity,” Cassady said. “Just tiny, tiny changes out there that far away could be enough to divert them off course and make them miss Earth.”

Aerojet Rockedyne hopes to refine its ion engine so that it could be used on an asteroid that will approach Earth in 2029.

“And that guy is a really big asteroid. So, we think we can use these ion engines as something called a gravity tractor to be able to do the same kind of thing and divert them off course,” Cassady said.

The DART project is being supported with the cooperation of space agencies from around the world, recognizing that every country could be affected by a big asteroid strike.

DART is scheduled for launch in June of 2021.

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