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DART asteroid mission: NASA’s first planetary defense spacecraft

Artist's illustration of DART spacecraft approaching two asteroids.

NASA’s DART mission will test asteroid defense techniques by conducting an asteroid redirection test. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben)

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART for short, can be an ambitious project made to test a way of deflecting an asteroid for the intended purpose of planetary defense, utilizing the “kinetic impactor” technique.

DART mission key points

Launched: Nov. 24, 2021 at 1: 20 a.m. EDT (0620 GMT)

Launch site: Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California

Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9

Target: Didymos and its own moonlet Dimorphos.

Target distance from Earth: 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers)

Estimated cost: $313.9 million (227.9 million)

DART Impact window: Sept. 26, to Oct. 2, 2022

The DART mission premiered at 10: 20 p.m. local time on Nov. 23, 2021, (1: 20 a.m. EDT, or 0620 GMT Nov. 24) atop a SpaceXFalcon 9 rocket from the area Launch Complex 4 at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The spacecraft is scheduled to reach at its target in late September 2022, in accordance with NASA officials (opens in new tab).

DART’s target is really a binary near-Earth asteroid (65803) Didymos and its own moonlet Dimorphos. The DART mission may be the first planetary defense mission to check asteroid deflection methods in accordance with The Planetary Society (opens in new tab).

Related: Apophis: The asteroid we thought might hit us (opens in new tab)

DART will deliberately impact the moonlet Dimorphos at speeds of 4.1 miles per second (6.6 km/s). That’s an eye-popping 14,760 mph (23,760 kph). The impact should cause the moonlet’s orbital speed to improve by way of a fraction of a percent in accordance with NASA (opens in new tab). This slight shift ought to be enough to improve its orbital period by several minutes. In accordance with NASA, the change in Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos will undoubtedly be observed and measured by telescopes on the planet, to see if the mission is a success.

DART mission target

DART will crash into Dimorphos causing a change to the moonlet's orbit.

Graphic showing the road of DART towards Dimorphos. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

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Although threat from asteroid impacts is small, based on the Planetary Society, this is a threat nonetheless, then one we should be ready for. We just need to look at past impact events like the massive Chicxulub (opens in new tab) asteroid impact that’s credited with the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years back, to start to see the catastrophic effects a direct effect might have on life on the planet.

Early detection of near-Earth asteroids may be the first rung on the ladder in planetary defense. Approximately 30 new discoveries of near-Earth asteroids (opens in new tab) are created every week and in the beginning of 2019, there have been a lot more than 19,000 discovered near-Earth asteroids in accordance with NASA. DART would be the first mission to check an asteroid deflection technique.

Related: The best asteroid encounters ever! (opens in new tab)

NASA’s DART mission has been led by the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (opens in new tab) (JHUAPL). The mission’s target may be the binary asteroid system Didymos, this means “twin” in Greek. The machine includes a near-Earth asteroid (65803) measuring 0.48 miles (780 meters) across and its own moonlet Dimorphos measuring 525 feet (160 meters) across.

Although pair aren’t a threat to Earth, they’re perfect candidates for the DART mission as Dimorphos is just about exactly the same size being an asteroid which could pose probably the most likely threat to Earth (if one were on a collision course with the earth) in accordance with NASA. Their orbit round the sun can be close enough to Earth for ground-based telescopes to see and measure any differences following the collision.

Planetary scientist Nancy Chabot from JHUAPL spoke concerning the mission strategy with Space.com’s sister publication HOW IT OPERATES magazine.

Profile picture of Nancy Chabot.

Nancy Chabot is really a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and serves as a project scientist on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

“Among the major technology challenges of the mission is targeting a little asteroid in space at high speed when that asteroid hasn’t been imaged by spacecraft previously”, Chabot said.

“We realize from other asteroids which have been explored they have a variety of shapes, internal structures, surface properties and strengths, and these characteristics will influence just how much the asteroid Dimorphos is deflected in its orbit around Didymos.”

DART mission operations

Size comparisons between DART spacecraft, Didymos, Dimorphos and Earth objects.

Illustration showing the size comparison between DART, Didymos and Dimorphos. DART site between a bus and the Arc De Triomphe with regards to size. Dimorphos is situated between your Statue of Liberty and the fantastic Pyramid of Giza. While Didymos is between your One World Trade Center and Burj Khalifa (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

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DART is really a simple spacecraft. In accordance with JHUAPL, the box-shaped main vehicle (opens in new tab) measures roughly 3.9 x 4.3 x 4.3 feet (1.2 x 1.3 x 1.3 meters) concerning the size of a refrigerator. Each one of the two large solar arrays is 27.9 feet (8.5 meters) long when fully deployed. The DART spacecraft contains just one single instrument Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO). (As it happens if most of your goal would be to smash into an asteroid, you don’t have to have a lot with you).

After the DART spacecraft launches on its SpaceX Falcon 9, it’ll deploy its Roll-Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) to power itself for the journey to Didymos. Scientists tested the ROSA arrays (opens in new tab) onboard the International Space Station in June 2017 and were deemed suitable to supply the power necessary to support DART’s electric propulsion system, in accordance with NASA. (Actually, NASA has added larger versions of the ROSA arrays (opens in new tab) to the area station’s own power grid.) The DART spacecraft may also utilize the next-generation, fuel-efficient NASA Evolutional Xenon Thruster-Commercial (NEXT-C) solar electric propulsion system within its in-space propulsion.

In accordance with JHUAPL, DART will undoubtedly be guided to its target Dimorphos by sophisticated autonomous navigation software (opens in new tab). It’s no easy feat to discover a target that’s 525 feet (160 meters) in diameter and 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth. In accordance with JHUAPL, the navigation software was created to identify both Didymos and Dimorphos and distinguish between your two, therefore the DART spacecraft could be directed to small body Dimorphos.

Because the spacecraft approaches its target, an onboard high-resolution camera DRACO can help navigate the DART spacecraft and take measurements of the mark asteroid, like the decoration of Dimorphos. DRACO is founded on the LORRI camera from NASA’s New Horizons (opens in new tab) spacecraft.

DART’s companion: LICIACube

LICIACube will witness DART's impact with Dimorphos. In this image, a team of engineers inspects the LICIACube at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

An individual wearing white is holding the very best of LICIACube whilst wearing laboratory gloves. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

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In accordance with NASA, the DART spacecraft will not be making its journey to the near-Earth asteroid binary alone, instead, the spacecraft will undoubtedly be joined by LICIACube (opens in new tab) (Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging Asteroids). LICIACube is really a CubeSat contributed by the Italian Space Agency and built by Italian aerospace engineering company Argotec.

In accordance with NASA, the LICIRACube weighs just 31 pounds (14 kilograms) and measures roughly along an adult’s hand and forearm. The tiny CubeSat (opens in new tab) includes a essential job and you will be deployed by DART around 10 days prior to the spacecraft will impact Dimosphos. In accordance with Argotec, LICIACube will hang back and witness the impact, capturing images of the collision to greatly help verify the efficacy of the impact.

Post-impact investigations: Hera mission

ESA’s Hera mission will conduct post-impact investigations of DART’s impact with Dimorphos in accordance with JHUAPL. The spacecraft is planned to launch in 2024 and reach the Didymos binary system in 2026.

ESA’s Hera spacecraft will undoubtedly be joined by two CubeSats. Together, they’ll perform surveys of both Didymos and Dimorphos, paying particular focus on the crater left by DART’s collision with Dimorphos. The Hera mission also aims to find out an accurate mass of Dimosphos, in accordance with JHUAPL.

Although two missions, DART and Hera were created and operated independently, together they’ll advance our knowledge of planetary defense technologies. Associates from both missions are section of a global collaboration referred to as AIDA Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment. In accordance with ESA, AIDA is really a large international collaboration (opens in new tab) between ESA, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Observatoire de la Cte dAzur (OCA), NASA, and the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

DART is merely one section of a more substantial planetary defence strategy that’s led by NASA’s Planetary Defence Coordination Office, in accordance with Chabot.

“DART’s demonstration of the technology is a major lead to inform future planetary defence activities”, she said.

“Finding, tracking and characterising the near-Earth object population is crucially vital that you the success of any future planetary defence mitigation efforts, which DART is merely the initial test.”

Additional resources

You will see images from the JHUAPL DART mission at the mission image gallery (opens in new tab)Alternatively, find out more about planetary defense with ESA (opens in new tab).

Bibliography

DART delayed to November launch as environmental testing begins (opens in new tab)“. NASA Spaceflight (2021).

DART, NASA’s test to avoid an asteroid from hitting Earth (opens in new tab)“. The Planetary Society (2022).

DART Updates (opens in new tab)“. NASA (2022).

DART: Double Asteroid Redirection Test (opens in new tab)“. John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory: DART (2022).

DART Impactor (opens in new tab)“. John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory: DART (2022).

Join our Space Forums to help keep talking space on the most recent missions, night sky and much more! And if you’ve got a news tip, correction or comment, tell us at: community@space.com.

Daisy Dobrijevic

Daisy Dobrijevic joined Space.com in February 2022 as a reference writer having previously worked for the sister publication ABOUT Space magazine as an employee writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky during the night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the general public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and in addition holds a Master’s in Environmental Science, she actually is currently located in Nottingham, U.K.

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