NASA & SpaceX Launch DART: ‘First Test Mission To Defend Planet Earth’ From Asteroids

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On Wednesday, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was launched from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

This is the world’s first full-scale mission to test technology for defending Earth against “potential asteroid or comet hazards.” DART was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“Just one part of NASA’s larger planetary defense strategy, DART — built and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland — will impact a known asteroid that is not a threat to Earth,” announced NASA in a statement. “Its goal is to slightly change the asteroid’s motion in a way that can be accurately measured using ground-based telescopes.”

NASA explained that “DART will show that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it,” demonstrating a “method of deflection called kinetic impact.”

“The test will provide important data to help better prepare for an asteroid that might pose an impact hazard to Earth, should one ever be discovered,” NASA added.

“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth.”

“At its core, DART is a mission of preparedness, and it is also a mission of unity,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This international collaboration involves DART, ASI’s LICIACube, and ESA’s Hera investigations and science teams, which will follow up on this groundbreaking space mission.”

DART is carrying out a one-way trip to the Didymos asteroid system, which consists of two asteroids. DART will be targeting the moonlet, Dimorphos, which is approximately 530 feet in diameter. The moonlet orbits Didymos, which is approximately 2,560 feet in diameter.

“Since Dimorphos orbits Didymos at much a slower relative speed 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,” explained NASA.

“We have not yet found any significant asteroid impact threat to Earth, but we continue to search for that sizable population we know is still to be found. Our goal is to find any possible impact, years to decades in advance, so it can be deflected with a capability like DART that is possible with the technology we currently have,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters. “DART is one aspect of NASA’s work to prepare Earth should we ever be faced with an asteroid hazard. In tandem with this test, we are preparing the Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, an space-based infrared telescope scheduled for launch later this decade and designed to expedite our ability to discover and characterize the potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.”

The spacecraft is scheduled to intercept the Didymos system between September 26 and October 1, 2022. It will intentionally slam into Dimorphos at approximately 4 miles per second.

“Scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes,” NASA noted. “Researchers will precisely measure that change using telescopes on Earth. Their results will validate and improve scientific computer models critical to predicting the effectiveness of the kinetic impact as a reliable method for asteroid deflection.”

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Author: Ian Haworth