Asteroid deflection: NASA’s DART mission to test planetary defense

A new mission, the first of its kind, will see a spacecraft collide with an asteroid intentionally to see if its trajectory can be diverted, something that could save humanity from a catastrophe in the future.

Called Double Asteroid Redirection Test Mission (DART), the test is the result of collaboration between NASA and the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), and will take off early Wednesday morning from Base. from the Vandenberg Space Force in California aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Its target is Dimorphos, a 160-meter-wide asteroid that is part of the Didymos binary asteroid system, and is scheduled to arrive there in September 2022, colliding at a speed of around 6.6 kilometers per second. This will coincide with Dimorphos being 11 million kilometers from Earth, close enough for observers on Earth to measure the impact and any changes in trajectory.

One of the leading scientists behind it, Andy Rivkin, even wrote a song about it.

The DART spacecraft is relatively simple and inexpensive. Essentially it is a 1.2 x 1.3 x 1.3 meter box, with other structures extending it. In total, it measures 1.8 meters wide, 1.9 meters long and 2.6 meters high. The spacecraft has a mass of about 610 kilograms, but on impact it will have a mass of 550 kilograms. It carries around 50 kilograms of thruster for maneuvering and attitude control and 60 kilograms for propulsion, although it will use only 10 kilograms of the latter.

The technology involved, in addition to Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Op-nav (DRACO) and sophisticated navigation software designed to ensure maximum precision, includes the “kinetic impactor” technique, which should be able to change the motion of an asteroid in space.

In simple terms, it means hitting an asteroid with a rocket fast enough to change its direction by a fraction of a percent, a process that NASA has likened to a “pillow fight in microgravity.”

Even if it were only a fraction of a percentage, the change would be enough to be observed and measured by astronomers.

But why is this so important?

An asteroid impact is one of the biggest possible natural disasters that could occur. The danger of even the smallest is something well known to experts, and space agencies around the world monitor potential catastrophic impacts, as well as investigating possible means to stop them.

The last known significant impact of an asteroid was on February 15, 2013, when an asteroid exploded in midair over Chelyabinsk, Russia. While it caused no fatalities, the shock wave from the explosion shattered windows in six different Russian cities and 1,500 people required medical attention.

That asteroid was only 17 meters. But many others, like Dimorphos, are much larger, and any asteroid with a diameter of at least 140 meters could be catastrophic if it hit the planet. Something as large as Dimorphos hitting Earth would be far more destructive than a typical nuclear bomb. Something even bigger, over 300 meters like the asteroid Apophis, could cause the destruction of an entire continent.

And an asteroid over a kilometer in size could trigger cataclysms around the world.

An asteroid is seen crashing into Earth in this artist’s rendering of an asteroid impact. (credit: PIXABAY)

NASA has declared Earth safe from asteroid impact risk for the next century. However, the danger remains and it is worth investing in building a defense against the catastrophic impact of an asteroid.

DART is humanity’s first step to do just that. And since astronomers detect so many Near Earth Objects (NEOs) well in advance, knowing if DART works and can be used to prevent an incoming disaster is valuable information, and a tiny change in trajectory can make all the difference.

But even if it fails, it will undoubtedly bring important data and insights for future planetary defense measures.

This is a developing story.

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