NASA will use the spacecraft later this month to test a planetary defense method that could one day save Earth.
The Double Asteroid Redirect Test spacecraft, otherwise known as DART, will be used to strike an asteroid not too far from Earth in September. 26. The mission is an international collaboration to protect the world from future asteroid impacts.
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“While the asteroid poses no threat to Earth, this is the world’s first test of a kinetic impact technique using a spacecraft to guide an asteroid for planetary defense,” NASA said Thursday.
In November 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched by DART from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Now, 10 months later, DART will capture the asteroid by performing three trajectory correction maneuvers over the next three weeks. Each maneuver will reduce the margin of error for the spacecraft’s trajectory required to impact the asteroid, known as Dimorphos, scientists say.
NASA says that after the last maneuver in September. 25, about 24 hours before the impact, the navigation team will know the position of Dimorphos within 2 kilometers. From there, DART will autonomously guide itself into collision with an out-of-this-world space rock.
Taking a look at the asteroid
DART recently made its first look at Didymos, a double asteroid system that includes its target, Dimorphos.
An image from 20 million miles away showed the Didymos system to be extremely faint. Again, after combining a series of images, astronomers were able to pinpoint the exact location of Dimorphos.
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“Once we see the DRACO images from Didymos for the first time, we can iron out the best settings for DRACO and fine-tune the software,” said Julie Bellerose, DART navigation lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “In September, we will determine where DART is headed by pinpointing Didymos more precisely.”
DART’s mission objective
If DART hits Dimorphos at 15,000 mph as planned, it will test Earth’s kinetic impact mechanism.
“The point of a kinetic impactor is that you ram your spacecraft into an asteroid you’re concerned about, and then in doing so you change its orbit around the Sun,” said Andy Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
DART will not change the orbit of Didymos. This aims to change the speed of the sunflower Dimorphos. Ground-based telescopes and data from spacecraft will eventually tell scientists whether their plans are working.
Asteroids orbit the Sun at a speed of 20 miles per second. Rivkin explained that if the kinetic impact method were used to change its orbit, engineers would only want to change it by a small amount, perhaps an inch or two per second.
That’s why Didymos and his sunflower Dimorphos are perfect training targets. The small asteroid orbits Didymos and moves about a foot per second, which is easier to measure than 20 miles per second.
If it works, the idea is to apply the same technique to larger asteroids. Until this mission, scientists could only simulate such an effect in the laboratory. DART will provide them with information to strengthen this defense plan.
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