Ten months after its launch, NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART spacecraft neared its target on Monday. This display will be a test of the world’s first planetary defense system. This system was designed to prevent a potential doomsday collision with Earth.
The Technology of the Future
The cube-shaped vehicle is roughly the size of a vending machine. It is outfitted with two rectangular solar arrays. It is on course to fly into the asteroid Dimorphos, which is as large as a football stadium. The spacecraft is scheduled to self-destruct at around 7 p.m. EDT at around 6.8 million miles from Earth.
The goal of the mission is to test the ability of spacecraft to alter an asteroid’s path using just kinetic force. The idea is for it to nudge the asteroid astray just enough to put it off course of Earth. This mission marks the first attempt to change the motion of an asteroid or any other celestial body.
In Loving Memory of DART
DART was originally launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021. It has reportedly made the most of its voyage with guidance from NASA flight directors. In the final hours of the journey, control will be handed over to an autonomous onboard navigation system.
The planned impact on Monday will be monitored in real-time from the mission operations center at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. The technical term for the spacecraft’s target is a “moonlet.” The moonlet is around 560 feet in diameter and currently orbits a parent asteroid that is five times larger than it. The name of the parent asteroid is Didymos and the two asteroids are part of a binary pair with the same name, the Greek word for twin.
Taking It for a Spin
While the two asteroids do not pose any threat to Earth, NASA does not want to accidentally create an existential hazard. Dimorphos and Didymos are tiny compared to the Chicxulub asteroid that hit the Earth around 66 million years ago. When Chicxulub hit the Earth, it wiped out 75% of the world’s plant and animal species, including dinosaurs.
Smaller asteroids like Dimorphos and Didymos pose a much greater theoretical threat to us in the short term. This mission represents a rare instance in which the spacecraft must actually crash in order to succeed. DART will fly into Dimorphos going 15,000 miles per hour, which should bump it hard enough to shift its orbital track closer to Didymos.
There are cameras mounted on the impactor and aboard a briefcase-sized mini craft that DART will release days in advance that will record the collision and send the images back to NASA. At its final approach, DART will transmit approximately one image per second. Those images will stream live on NASA TV beginning one hour before impact.
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