NASA’s unprecedented DART mission will intentionally crash a spacecraft into an asteroid next week

An illustration of the Italian Space Agency’s DART and LICIACube spacecraft before impact in the Didymos binary system.NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

A golf cart-sized spacecraft will intentionally crash into a small asteroid at about 14,000 miles per hour on September 26. It is humanity’s first test of our ability to deflect dangerous incoming space rocks.

NASA currently knows the location and orbit of approximately 28,000 nearby asteroids. To be clear, scientists have not found any asteroids that pose an immediate threat to human civilization. But experts say it’s a question of when, not if, Earth is on track to be hit by one.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in November 2021, with the goal of nudging a space rock into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion asteroid. It’s a test of whether such a push could one day deflect a rogue space rock headed for Earth. The $308 million spacecraft traveled 6.8 million miles from Earth to Dimorphos, a small asteroid that orbits the asteroid Didymos.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to hit on Monday and that there will be total success,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s chief planetary defense officer, told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

This image of light from asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moon Dimorphos is a composite of 243 images taken by the Didymos Asteroid and Reconnaissance Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) on July 27, 2022.

This image of light from asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moon Dimorphos is a composite of 243 images taken by the Didymos Asteroid Reconnaissance and Optical Navigation Camera on July 27, 2022.NASA JPL DART Navigation Team

On Monday, September 26, four hours before impact, DART will switch to autonomous mode and head toward its target. If all goes according to plan, the 1,376-pound spacecraft will collide with Dimorphos, altering its orbit around Didymos ever so slightly. Scientists expect the collision to change Dimorphos’ speed by a fraction of 1%.

(The asteroid’s name, Dimorphos, is Greek for “having two shapes” and was chosen because the asteroid will have one shape before DART crashes into it and another shape afterward.)

Dimorphos is about 525 feet in diameter and orbits another, larger asteroid: the 2,650-foot-wide Didymos.

According to Elena Adams, systems engineer for the DART mission, the team will know that DART successfully crashed into Dimorphos when they lose signal from the spacecraft. “We’re all going to celebrate,” Adams told reporters Thursday.

The asteroid system poses no threat to Earth, according to NASA, making it the perfect target to test our ability to collide with asteroids, change their orbit, and move them out of Earth’s path.

An animation looking from behind as NASA's first planetary defense test mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), collides with the small moon of asteroid Dimorphos.

An animation from behind as NASA’s first planetary defense test mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, collides with the small moon of asteroid Dimorphos.NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Jon Emmerich

While the spacecraft will not survive the encounter, its only scientific instrument, the Didymos Asteroid and Reconnaissance Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO), will power up for the deadly dive, taking one image per second to document the impact and aftermath.

“We’re excited about what DRACO will reveal about Didymos and Dimorphos in the hours and minutes leading up to impact,” said Carolyn Ernst, DRACO instrument scientist at APL, in a press release.

About three minutes after the collision, a shoebox-sized CubeSat developed by the Italian Space Agency, the LICIACube, will take high-resolution images of the event. On September 11, the CubeSat left the spacecraft and is now a safe distance of about 34 miles from the surface of Dimorphos.

Infographic showing the effect of the DART impact on the orbit of Dimorphos.

Infographic showing the effect of the DART impact on the orbit of Dimorphos.NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

A live stream of images captured by the spacecraft will be available on NASA’s website beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday, September 26. The impact is expected to occur around 7:14 pm ET.

“Even after DART is gone, the images traveling through space will still appear for about eight seconds,” Ed Reynolds, project manager for DART, told reporters Thursday.

Once DART has been destroyed during the collision, follow-up observations with ground-based and space-based telescopes will assess the asteroid system to see how much its orbit has changed.

Data from the mission will provide astronomers with important information about how well the spacecraft could protect Earth from an incoming asteroid and inform adjustments that need to be made to the probe.

Two years after the DART collision with Dimorphos, the European Space Agency will launch a mission called Hera to study Didymos and Dimorphos in depth. By observing the deformations caused by the impact, the spacecraft aims to gain a better understanding of the composition and formation of Dimorphos.

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