Planetary Defense Test To See If An Asteroid’s Path Can Be Changed Is About To Launch

DART’s target is Dimorphos, which does not pose a threat to the Earth and is around 525 feet in diameter. The closest it has been recorded coming to our planet was within a distance of just over 4.46 million miles in 2003, per a database that NASA maintains, and is expected to be around 6.8 million miles away when the spacecraft collides with it. This asteroid, which was only formally given a name last year as part of this mission, orbits around another, larger one named Didymos with a diameter just shy of 2,560 feet.

The hope is that the DART spacecraft will demonstrate that is possible to alter the motion of an asteroid in a deliberate way by smashing another object into it in the vacuum of space. Even a small change in course initially as a result of the impact could be useful as the deviation could grow substantially over time, putting the threat outside of well outside of any potential impact window by the time it comes anywhere near Earth. The force also needs to be measured enough so as not to shatter the target, which could simply create multiple threatening objects.

“DART will be the first demonstration of the ‘kinetic impactor’ technique in which a spacecraft deliberately collides with a known asteroid at high speed to change the asteroid’s motion in space,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, said in a statement. “This technique is thought to be the most technologically mature approach for mitigating a potentially hazardous asteroid, and it will help planetary defense experts refine asteroid kinetic impactor computer models, giving insight into how we could deflect potentially dangerous near-Earth objects in the future.”

DART, which the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) designed and built for NASA over a period of more than a decade, only has one instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation, or DRACO. Combined with an antonymous navigation system, the spacecraft will use DRACO to identify Dimorphos and aim itself toward the asteroid. It does incorporate advanced technologies, including a xenon-powered NEXT-C ion propulsion system, which is intended to provide improved performance and fuel efficiency over previously propulsion options, and “a flat, slotted high-gain antenna for efficient communication between Earth and the spacecraft,” according to NASA.

“I’m both amazed and grateful that DART has gone from a twinkle in the eye to a spacecraft in final preparation for launch within 11 years,” said Andy Cheng, the DART investigation team lead at APL and who is credited with coming up with the original idea for this spacecraft, said in a statement. “What made it possible was a great team that overcame all the challenges of building a spacecraft to do something never done before.”

A small CubeSat provided by the Italian Space Agency, called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids, or LICIACub, will accompany DART on this mission. LICIACub will initially be attached directly to DART, but will be released five days before the impact in order to gather imagery of the test. The European Space Agency (ESA) already has plans to launch an additional probe, called Hera, years from now in order to better assess what effect the impact actually had on Dimorphous.

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