NASA will use a spacecraft later this month to test a method of planetary defense that could one day save Earth.
The Double Asteroid Redirect Test spacecraft, also known as the DART, will be used as a battering ram to crash into an asteroid not far from Earth on September 26. The mission is an international collaboration to protect the globe from future asteroid impacts.
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“Although the asteroid poses no threat to Earth, this is the world’s first test of the kinetic impact technique, using spacecraft to deflect an asteroid for planetary defense,” NASA said Thursday. .
In November 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched with DART from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Now, 10 months later, DART will catch up with the asteroid by performing three course correction maneuvers over the next three weeks. Scientists say each maneuver will reduce the margin of error in the spacecraft’s required trajectory to impact the asteroid known as Dimorphos.
NASA says that after the final maneuver on September 25, about 24 hours before impact, the navigation team will know the position of Dimorphos within a radius of 2 kilometers. From there, DART will be on its own to guide itself autonomously until it collides with the out-of-this-world space rock.
Take a look at the asteroid
DART recently got its first glimpse of Didymos, the twin asteroid system that includes its target, Dimorphos.
An image taken 20 million kilometers away showed that the Didymos system was quite weak. Yet once a series of images were combined, astronomers were able to pinpoint the exact location of Dimorphos.
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“Seeing the DRACO images of Didymos for the first time allows us to iron out the best parameters for DRACO and fine-tune the software,” said Julie Bellerose, DART navigation manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “In September, we will refine the DART target by obtaining a more precise determination of the location of Didymos.”
DART mission objective
If DART hits Dimorphos at 15,000 mph as predicted, it will test the Kinetic Impactor Earth Defense theory.
“The point of a kinetic impactor is that you ram your spacecraft into the asteroid you’re worried about, and then alter its orbit around the Sun by doing that,” said Andy Rivkin, planetary astronomer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
DART will not change the orbit of Didymos. It aims to alter the speed of the moon, Dimorphos. Ground-based telescopes and spacecraft data will ultimately tell scientists if their plan worked.
Asteroids move around the sun at a speed of about 20 miles per second. Rivkin explained that if a kinetic impactor method was used to alter its orbit, engineers would only want to alter that by a tiny amount, perhaps an inch or two per second.
That’s why Didymos and his little lunar Dimorphos are a perfect training target. The small asteroid orbits Didymos and is moving at about a foot per second, which is much easier to measure than 20 miles per second.
If it works, the idea is to apply the same technique to larger asteroids. Until this mission, scientists could only simulate such an impact in the laboratory. DART will provide them with data to help solidify this defense plan.
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