The first asteroid mitigation mission was launched. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart, for its acronym in English), NASA and Johns Hopkins APL, is the first planetary defense test mission designed to change the course of an asteroid.
The American aerospace transport company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has a signed contract for at least 6 million dollars to carry out this mission in conjunction with NASA. The plan is deflect asteroids through a procedure that consists of sending a spacecraft of approximately 19 meters in length, to make it impact against a binary asteroid, composed of two “twin” bodies.
DART mission details
After years of hard work, calculations and preparation, finally Dart took off at 6.21 hours UTC on Wednesday, November 24, 2021, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, USA.
The objective is that with that force I achieve change its orbit around the larger twin, and thus test the possibility of deflecting the trajectory of an asteroid. This could be a very useful method in the future to get off the target of potentially dangerous asteroids with high chances of impact on the Earth’s surface.
The mission will help determine whether deliberately crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to deflect the asteroid, NASA explains.
DART will travel 11 million kilometers autonomously powered by solar panels before hitting Dimorphos (163 meters in diameter), a small asteroid that revolves around a larger one called Didymos (about 780 meters in diameter), with the aim of slightly altering its orbit. Something similar to a billiard ball displacing another when hitting it, saving the differences in masses, volumes and the extreme scenario where this complicated system is found, of course!
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This mission was baptized by many as “NASA’s suicide mission”, by the fact of sending a ship to the “direct death” when impacting against this great rock. However, for NASA and the billions of people who follow DART step by step, it is a “heroic test mission”.
Yes OK neither of these two asteroids is a danger to Earth, the mission is critically important to help NASA test planetary defense capabilities, should it be necessary to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with our planet in the future.
The moment of truth
DART carries on board DRACO, a camera which will support autonomous navigation and orientation of the spacecraft that will transmit images to Earth in real time before impact, explains NASA.
Additionally, approximately 10 days before DART reaches its target, the American spacecraft will deploy a small satellite built in Italy, the LICIACube a CubeSAT from the Italian Space Agency that travels with DART to Capture images of the collision and crater generated on the surface of Dimorphos.
Since Dimorphos orbits Didymos at a relative speed much slower than the pair orbits the Sun, the result of DART’s kinetic impact within the binary system can be measured much more easily than a change in the orbit of a single asteroid around the Sun. .
Scientists will use ground-based telescope observations before and after impact, to determine how much Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos will change.
If the mission goes according to plan, at the end of the year 2022 (between September 26 and October 1) the spaceship will hit the desired target and crash violently into Dimorphos, at a speed of approximately 6.6 kilometers per second.
What is the most dangerous asteroid today?
“We have not yet found any significant threat of asteroid impact on Earth, but we continue looking for the possibility (..) Our goal is find any possible impact, years or decades in advance, so that it can be diverted with a capacity like DART that is possible with the technology we currently have “said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters.
While the most dangerous asteroid so far is the 2009FD, which has less than 0.2% chance of hitting the Earth in the year 2185, scientists must constantly monitor these rocks and their future trajectories, because news continually arrives from space and the information is updated with new findings.