The scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab will build a spacecraft to intercept asteroids before they can become a terrestrial threat. The space craft will be able to strike an asteroid at high speed in order to shift its orbit. If an asteroid of only a few kilometres in diameter were to collide with the Earth it would release the energy of several million nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously.
A meteorite the size of a school bus crashed over Russia in 2013 injuring over 1,600 people.
If it had been an asteroid the ensuing death toll would be in the hundreds of thousands.
An asteroid nicknamed The Rock came within a million miles of Earth in 2017.
NASA’s Chief Scientist Dr. James Garvin said: “If it were to ever hit earth the force would be “something on the order of 5,000 to 10,000 hydrogen bombs.”
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The space craft is called The Double Asteroid Redirection Test.
Andy Cheng is co-leading the DART investigation.
He said: “What we can do about it is to change the orbit of the asteroid so it misses.
“And that’s what we intend to learn how to do.”
In 2022, DART will hit the smaller of two asteroids orbiting around each other, hopefully changing its speed.
Mr Cheng said: “It will be a millimetre per second
“That tiny change would be enough for a real asteroid heading for the Earth to make it miss.
“It’s because we’re hitting it awful fast. We’re hitting it at several times the speed of a rifle bullet.”