SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – A NASA engineer with ties to Shreveport is at the center of a mission to protect future generations from the threat of asteroids slamming into Earth.
Science tells us that 65 million years ago, an asteroid hit the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula. It wiped out the dinosaurs, which led to humans inhabiting the Earth. The big question for scientists and science fiction is, what if it were to happen again? We can monitor asteroids, but how can we stop them?
Dr. Justin Atchinson is an Aerospace Engineer with the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. He’s also from Shreveport, and part of a first-ever mission through NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test known as DART to find answers to those questions.
DART is a planetary defense test looking for ways to prevent an asteroid from hurtling toward the Earth, especially if it is large enough to make it through the atmosphere and hit the planet. A spacecraft was launched that is heading six million miles away to crash into an asteroid at 15,000 miles per hour to knock the asteroid off its course.
NASA’s DART mission launched on November 24, 2021, aboard a Space X Falcon 9 Rocket. The spacecraft, which is about the size of a golf cart, is on its way to smash into a small asteroid to examine what’s called a kinetic impact to slightly change the asteroid’s course.
It’s called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test because the spacecraft will hit the smaller moonlet called Dimorphos that’s in a binary system orbiting the larger asteroid called Didymos.
“We basically just hit the asteroid as fast as we can, and in doing so, nudge it ever so slightly. Then if it’s done early enough and in the right direction, that could prevent it from hitting Earth in the future.”
This particular asteroid does not pose any risk to Earth. It is a test mission to study the math and prepare the technology needed to save the planet from future impacts.
“We want to be ready if we do discover one that poses a threat, so we’re not caught off guard.”
Fortunately for us, there are no known asteroids that would hit Earth for at least the next 100 years.
“But every night, we discover more. There’s a global array of telescopes that are all looking up and surveying something like a million asteroids right now. There are calculating their orbits and their future trajectories.”
Atchinson went to Stoner Hill, Caddo Middle Magnet, and Caddo Middle High, and Caddo Career Center. From there, he went to Louisiana Tech in Ruston and then on to Cornell University before joining the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He says an internship at Louisiana Tech through Northrop Grumman helped inspire him to be a spacecraft engineer. He became interested in studying asteroids because they reveal the early remnants of how the solar system was formed.
“You had all these bodies colliding and collapsing and creating planets and impacting each other. All the asteroids, the millions of asteroids, are the debris left over from that. They are made up of different materials and in wild orbits. So it’s exciting to see how they have evolved over time to better understand how our solar system has formed and evolved.”
DART will arrive for impact on the asteroid in late 2022, becoming the first mission ever to deflect an asteroid.
Later this decade, NASA is launching a space-based telescope to discover more asteroids that could be hiding from us.