The mission DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) takes off this Wednesday at 7:21 a.m., Spanish peninsular time, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It is NASA’s first planetary defense mission and aims to demonstrate whether it is feasible to deflect asteroids through an impact. Specifically, the impact of a Falcon 9 rocket from the SpaceX company. The goal is to collide with the target to see how the orbit changes. This is a test to see if that plan is feasible in the event that we one day encounter an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
The experiment that wants to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe
Cristina Thomas, associate professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at Northern Arizona University and leader of the DART Observations Task Force, is excited to see the effects of the impact, as stated by the aforementioned university in a statement.
The spacecraft is designed to autonomously guide itself to impact an asteroid while traveling at a speed of approximately 15,000 miles per hour. Its target is the lunar asteroid Dimorphos (Greek for “two ways”), which orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos (Greek for “twin”). The DART rocket is expected to reach its destination in the fall of 2022.
Closeness to Earth, of course, is relative; the planet is not in danger with Didymos. However, it is possible for an asteroid to head towards Earth, and scientists around the world are working to identify these potential threats and how to mitigate them. If this mission goes according to plan, this technique, called ‘kinetic impact deflection’, could be an important piece of a planetary defense system.
“DART is a critical step for planetary defense,” said Thomas. “It is, at first glance, a simple test, but we will not fully understand what will happen until we do.”
Using data from 2003, when the satellite was discovered, to early 2021, the working group has been able to pinpoint the characteristics of the orbit and the position of Dimorphos in orbit at the time of impact in fall 2022.
Thomas will be in California for the launch, and she and her team will continue to make observations after the collision to determine the change in the orbital period caused by the impact of the spacecraft.
What is DART?
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test is the world’s first test of large-scale planetary defense. DART is a focused mission, demonstrating that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it (called a kinetic impact) at approximately 4 miles per second (6 kilometers per second).