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Monday, December 6, 2021

NASA’s DART to change the course of an asteroid and history

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NASA’s DART spacecraft launched today will collide with an asteroid to see if its orbit can be changed.

For the first time, humans are trying to change the course of an asteroid to see if possible collisions with Earth can be prevented in the future. Leading the way is NASA with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which launched early this morning (November 24).

DART, traveling with a one-way ticket on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, left California and is now heading toward a 160-meter space rock called Dimorphos. The goal is to collide with the asteroid and change its orbit slightly.

Dimorphos is not considered a threat to Earth and is used simply as an experiment. If successful, the mission will demonstrate that it is possible to change the collision course of an object that may be heading towards Earth in the future.

“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we are also working to protect that home.”

While there are no known asteroids on a collision course with Earth in the near future, even objects a few hundred meters in diameter could cause worldwide damage on impact. Changing the course of an object even a little bit can avoid a collision.

“Our goal is to find any possible impact, years or decades in advance, so that it can be diverted with a capability like DART that is possible with the technology we have today,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer.

European contribution

About 10 days before DART makes contact with Dimorphos, a small Italian satellite called the LiciaCube will be deployed from the spacecraft to capture images of the impact and the resulting cloud of ejected matter. LiciaCube is a cubesat developed by the Italian Space Agency.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will also have a role to play in this effort. Four years after DART’s impact with Dimorphos, ESA’s Hera project will launch onto the same asteroid for detailed studies.

“At its core, DART is a readiness mission and also a unity mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, speaking of the international collaboration between NASA, the Italian space agency and ESA. . .

Hera, named after the Greek goddess of marriage, will focus on the crater left by the DART collision and attempt to determine the internal structure and precise mass of Dimorphos after the impact. Hera is expected to launch in November 2024 and go live in late 2026.

“I am very happy to see the DART mission underway,” said Ian Carnelli, Hera’s project manager. “Great job from NASA, SpaceX and the Applied Physics Laboratory teams, they make it look easy!”

The Hera spacecraft is currently being built in Germany, while some of its other essential parts, such as its navigation and radar system, are being built and tested in Spain and the Netherlands.

“It’s an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve been involved in since the ‘words on paper’ stage becomes real and launched into space,” said Andy Cheng, one of the research leaders in the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins, who came up with the idea for DART.

‚ÄúThis is just the end of Act 1, and DART’s research and engineering teams have a lot of work to do over the next year in preparation for the main event: DART’s Kinetic Impact at Dimorphos. But tonight we celebrate! “

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