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UofA tracks asteroids ahead of historic space mission

Scientists at the University of Arizona keep their eyes on the skies - KOLD News 13's Jasmine Ramirez reports

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD/CBS News) - A spacecraft is fueled and ready for take off in the DART Mission.

"This is a test to see if NASA can deliberately change the orbit of an asteroid, explains Amy Mainzer, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona.

DART stands for "double asteroid redirection test." There is a large asteroid and a smaller "moon" asteroid that's orbiting it. NASA plans to crash into the smaller asteroid.

"The idea is to go run a small spacecraft into the moon in such a way it will change the orbit of the asteroid's moon around its primary," says Mainzer.

This double asteroid is no threat to earth, but the mission will prove whether we have the ability to change an asteroid's path if needed in the future. Tucson is home to some of the biggest planetary defense projects in the nation. Mainzer tracks near-earth asteroids.

"The objective is to see as many of these objects as quickly in advance as we can before they get close to earth," says the professor.

Renu Malhotra also specializes in planetary science. She says very tiny asteroids burn up in the atmosphere before hitting earth. Small rocks can hit earth and are often referred to as meteorites. Large threatening asteroids are much rarer.

"The large ones strike once in many millions of years," says Professor Malhotra.

She says a six-mile-long asteroid hit earth about 65 million years ago and caused the dinosaurs to go extinct.

"It really stopped the food chain and caused the demise of many species. Something like 90 percent of all the species that were present perished," she says.

For now, researchers are keeping a close watch on asteroids that could ever be a danger to the planet.

"We'd like to expand our capabilities so that we can find even more of these projects and know where the really big ones are and keep tabs on them, so we don't have to worry about it," says Mainzer.

CBS News

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