Saturday, December 4, 2021

NASA To Launch First-Ever Inter-Planetary Defense Mission; Aims To Thwart Asteroid Attacks On Earth

US space agency NASA has launched several spacecraft into the solar system, but its upcoming mission will attempt a one-of-its-kind feat to target an asteroid. The objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of using an interceptor to divert asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth.

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On November 24, NASA will launch the first spacecraft designed to collide with the asteroid and help test the technologies preventing space catastrophes. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is set to hit the smaller asteroid of the two-asteroid system Didymos and change its trajectory through kinetic impact.

The diameter of the smaller asteroid, known as Dimporphos, is about 160 meters (530 feet) while the larger is about 780 meters; they pose no threat to Earth. The size of the DART is hundreds of times smaller than Dimorphos and will hit it at the speed of 24,000 kilometers per hour (14,900 miles per hour).

DART spacecraft
An illustration of the DART spacecraft. (Image: NASA)

However, the collision is planned not to fully destroy the asteroid, but to slightly change its orbit, within one degree, according to the DART coordination lead, Nancy Chabot.

How does DART work?

DART is NASA’s first space mission to put this or any other asteroid deflection strategy to the test. DART will launch in November 2021 and reach Didymos, a near-Earth asteroid, in September 2022.

The spacecraft will not slow down, colliding with the asteroid’s small moon Dimorphos on purpose. The collision should reduce the time it takes Dimorphos to orbit Didymos, demonstrating the effectiveness of the kinetic impactor technology.

Didymos and Dimorphos are particularly well-suited targets for DART. They pass in front of each other as seen from Earth, despite the fact that Didymos is only 780 meters (half a mile) broad and Dimorphos is only 160 meters (525 feet) across.

For mission officials on Earth, a CubeSat flying with DART will observe the spacecraft’s deadly collision; ground-based telescopes will also assist in seeing the impact and how it impacts Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos.

NASA hopes that this mission will provide scientists with their first actual data on how a kinetic impactor approach to planetary defense can work in the real world, rather than only in simulations.

ROSA-asteroid
The ROSA array was tested onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2017. (Image: NASA)

The European Space Agency will launch Hera, a mission to examine Didymos and Dimorphos in-depth, two years after DART’s fireworks at Dimorphos. This will enable scientists to examine DART’s impact crater and fully comprehend the mission’s impact.

The DART spacecraft, which was developed and manufactured at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), has a small Roll-Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) and the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical (DRACO) navigation system.

A graphic showing components of the DART spacecraft, including the DRACO instrument, the NEXT-C engine, the Radial Line Slot Array (RLSA) antenna, and the ROSAs (Roll-Out Solar Arrays). The ROSAs are seen in their stowed position NASA

Need To Avoid Asteroid Collisions

Consider the fate of the dinosaurs to comprehend why scientists are concerned about asteroids. Experts in planetary defense are aiming to avert the kind of hit that wiped off most of these species around 66 million years ago.

DART
via NASA

Several astronomers and scientists have predicted that asteroids will be one of many natural phenomena that will do the most damage if we do not have a robust defense system in place to tackle them.

According to Meghan Bartels of Space.com, the planetary defense is divided into two sections. The first step entails examining the skies for as many asteroids as possible, then closely watching them so that scientists can calculate their trajectories and compare them to Earth’s orbit far into the future.

At this time, planetary defense experts are uninformed of any large asteroids on their way to Earth. However, if they find one, the second phase of planetary defense begins: striving to prevent mankind from becoming extinct like the dinosaurs, she added.

DART’s overall budget is $313.9 million, spread out over eight years, and includes spacecraft development, launch vehicle development, and mission operations through late 2022.

“It’s a miracle what this team has accomplished, with all of the obstacles in the way like COVID and the development of so many new technologies,” said Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

“But the reason why we succeeded so far is because our team is excited, extremely sharp, and they genuinely want to show that if an asteroid was coming toward Earth, we could prevent a catastrophe.”

“I’m both amazed and grateful that DART has gone from a twinkle in the eye to a spacecraft in final preparation for launch within 11 years,” said Andy Cheng, DART investigation team lead at APL and the one who came up with the idea of DART. “What made it possible was a great team that overcame all the challenges of building a spacecraft to do something never done before.”

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