The mission was given a green light by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in April. And on June 8, the space agency said it would carry out the test as part of the NEOWISE mission. The goal of the mission is to characterize the impact-prone asteroid in detail, as a precursor to future space-exploration.
Even though asteroid Bennu is fairly small in size at about 20 feet in diameter (the average size of a football field), a resulting impact with Earth is not something we can wish away. About 67,000 people on the planet have been affected by an asteroid impact since the dawn of civilization, and the possibility of that happening is inherently terrible.
According to NASA, Bennu is very likely to strike Earth at some point in the not-too-distant future — sometime in the middle of the century. Just by studying it, the agency hopes to understand the surface shape, make of the asteroid’s boulders, rate of rotation, and heat. In other words, for a few days, and on a narrow ledge between the Earth and the orbiting spacecraft, the ultimate fate of our home planet will be studied in fine detail by a human-driven robot in orbit around an asteroid.
So how will it work?
To do this exact mission, NASA will dock with the Asteroid Bennu at the Red Triangle near the asteroid’s edge. Tugging the spacecraft’s thrusters on a device called a “stack actuator,” the asteroid will cause all sorts of mechanical problems and problems. Eventually, the spacecraft will leave the Red Triangle and crash into the asteroid’s surface.
NASA estimates that the damage caused by the crash will last about a minute — about one-hundredth the time a human being would be exposed to the impact. But considering the likelihood of this event happening in our lifetime, it’s still time to learn as much as possible before Bennu is prepared to hit us.