It's the stuff of (mostly bad) science fiction. An asteroid on a collision course with Earth, threatening to wipe out all life as we know it.
If this were the movies, we'd be calling on Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, stars of "Armageddon," to land on the offending orb and blow it up with a nuclear bomb as an Aerosmith-supplied soundtrack keens in the background.
But this isn't the movies and we have something better than Ben: NASA.
On Tuesday night, the space agency launched a refrigerator-sized spacecraft in the direction of the asteroid Dimorphos, with the hopes of changing its path.
Now, Dimorphos is no threat to Earth. About twice the size of the Roman Colosseum, it's 6.8 million miles away. The spacecraft from the so-called Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART mission, isn't expected to hit the asteroid until next September or October. When it does, it is expect to slam the surface at roughly 15,000 miles per hour.
NASA scientists think the impact will be enough to slow the orbit of Dimorphos around a larger asteroid by about seven minutes. While that doesn't seem like a lot, it can give an indication of whether it's realistic to expect to be able to divert larger asteroids headed toward Earth.
While the chances of that happening are unlikely, they aren't non-existent. Just ask the dinosaurs.
NASA estimates there may be as many as 25,000 near-Earth asteroids that are large enough to cause "regional devastation" should they collide with the planet. Only about 40% have been identified. So as far-fetched as it may seem, this $324 million mission is actually money well-spent.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever tested a technique to deliberately move an asteroid using our own capabilities and systems,” Brent Barbee, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the New York Times. “It’s kind of a big milestone for our species. Like, the dinosaurs didn’t have a DART mission.”
Just one more thing to be thankful for as we scroll through movies on Netflix this long weekend.