At dawn this Wednesday (24), NASA launched the first mission that will try to divert an asteroid from its orbit, to test a technology that, in the future, can be used to protect the Earth from possible dangerous space rocks. This is the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or just the acronym “DART”), launched with a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX at 03:21 GMT. The launch took place at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
At 4:17 am, DART separated from the rocket’s second stage and, after a few minutes, the mission operators received the first telemetry data from the spacecraft, starting the process of guiding it to a safe position to release its solar panels. About two hours later, the spacecraft has completed the full deployment of the panels, which will power it and the Evolutionary Xenon Thruster — Commercial (NEXT-C) engine, one of the technologies that will be tested for applications in future missions.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 24, 2021
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The purpose of the DART mission is to go to the Didymos asteroid system to collide with Dimorphos, an asteroid approximately 160 m in diameter that orbits Didymos, at 780 m, to try to deflect him. This method is known as “kinetic impact” and, as the small Dimorphos orbits Didymos at a relative speed much lower than that of the pair as it travels around the Sun, the impact is expected to cause a small change in the asteroid’s motion, which may be measured by telescopes on the ground.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 24, 2021
In addition to showing whether a spacecraft can autonomously follow a target asteroid to intentionally collide with it, the mission will result in important data for scientists to prepare to deal with potentially dangerous space rocks. Furthermore, DART takes with it the LICIACube, an Italian cubesat that will be released shortly before impact to capture images.
Lindley Johnson, director of planetary defense at NASA, explains that astronomers have yet to find any asteroids that pose significant threats to Earth, but they are still looking for them. “The DART mission is an aspect of NASA’s work to prepare Earth if we ever have to face a dangerous asteroid,” she said. It is worth noting that the asteroids from the Didymos system are not dangerous for our planet.
Below, you can check the complete transmission of the release:
The next steps of the DART mission
After launch, the mission now enters the commissioning period. This stage lasts approximately 30 days, and mission members will use it to check the status of the ship’s systems and the DRACO instrument (“Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation”). According to Elena Adams, a systems engineer at the mission, they hope to use it in about eight days to take the first photos.
After 20 days of travel, the mission team will activate the NEXT-C engine, an ion propulsion system that can be used for future missions. Despite not being the ship’s main propulsion system, the NEXT-C will be used in tests under space conditions. As it travels to its target, the DRACO camera will make the first recordings of the Didymos system approximately 30 days before impact; when 10 days remain, DART will release the LICIACube satellite.
DART is expected to collide with Dimorphos in late September or early October 2022 to change its orbit around Didymos. If all goes well, the spacecraft is expected to crash into Dimorphos at around 24,000 km/h, when the system is about 11 million kilometers from Earth. The advantage of this distance is that the rocks will be at the closest point to us in their elliptical orbit, allowing astronomers to analyze the change and see how the kinetic impact fared should the method need to be used again in the future.
As early as October 2024, the European Space Agency (ESA) is expected to launch the Hera mission, which will investigate the “crime scene” after the impact. In addition to checking what DART has achieved, Hera could help astronomers learn more about Didymos and Dimorphos, whose shape, mass and composition data remain a mystery.