Nine engines from a SpaceX Falcon 9 came to life Wednesday morning, launching a NASA probe from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The probe, known as DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), is programmed to head toward a small rock millions of miles from Earth and then collide with it.
Just under 9 minutes after launching the thruster that launched DART into space, it returned to Earth, landing on a drone in the Pacific Ocean. NASA will now await “signal acquisition” that will let scientists at home know that DART is healthy and ready for its long journey to the rock.
The dazzling night launch signifies the potential dawn of a new era in planetary defense. NASA wants to show that DART can deflect an asteroid, in this case the small moon known as “Dimorphos”. This particular rock orbits a larger asteroid known as Didymos. Neither pose a threat to Earth. However, if our telescopes detected a killer asteroid heading straight for us, we may have to resort to this kind of deliberate collision (in scientific parlance, that’s what is known as a “kinetic impact”).
That makes DART something of a test for a potentially planet-saving maneuver. Over the next year, the probe will fire up its ion thrusters and slowly pick up speed as it moves toward the asteroid pair. The violent encounter is scheduled for September 2022 at about 15,000 miles per hour. “It’s like going from New York City to Los Angeles in less than the blink of an eye,” Denton Gibson of NASA Launch Services said during the live broadcast.
NASA predicts that the shock will be strong enough to adjust Dimorphos’ orbital period by a few minutes. The calculations show the impact that Dimorphos will bring closer a Didymos and ground-based telescopes will be able to capture incremental change. That means we won’t have confirmation of DART’s success until sometime in the second half of 2020.
The results will inform future planetary protectors of the best way to avoid or guard against a dangerous rock, something that dinosaurs could have used 66 million years ago. In space, even small nudges can cause big changes in trajectories, so as long as we can detect rocks (and that’s something else), we should be able to push them off the cosmic road to Earth.
DART is pretty simple. It’s a relatively inexpensive metal case with two deployable and extendable solar panels for power, a single camera and a smaller satellite, or CubeSat, which will deploy just before impact. The limited number of tools makes sense, as the spaceship is doomed to die on a suicide mission.
Here are some details about the DART spacecraft:
Cost: $ 308 million.
Weight: 1,345 pounds (610 kilograms) at launch / 1,210 (550 kg) pounds on impact.
Box dimensions: 3.9 by 4.3 by 4.3 feet (1.2 by 1.3 by 1.3 meters).
Solar array dimensions: 27.9 feet each (8.5 meters).
Additional instrumentation: DRACO camera and a CubeSat.
Motor: Ion propulsion technology / xenon propellants.
While the payload of the DART spacecraft is very minimal, the programming of the team behind the course is very advanced. That’s because the brave little ship will behave autonomously throughout the mission.
What science is DART doing?
The spacecraft’s tools may be few, but they are key. The Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, or DRACO, is an ultra-high resolution camera that can measure the size, shape, and geological composition of nearby asteroids.
DART also has a metal oxide semiconductor and an image processor that will help the spacecraft determine the precise positioning of Dimorphos and transmit information to Earth in real time via an antenna attached to the machine.
Additionally, DART will be armed with a state-of-the-art set of directional-encoded navigation tools, including the star tracker, which is my favorite NASA tool, to ensure it reaches Dimorphos at exactly the right time: ding, ding: the 7 million mile (11 million kilometer) checkpoint. Ten days before DART hits its target, it will dispatch its CubeSat. That branch will preserve the chronicle of the kinetic impact long after the DART turns to rubble.
DART will do its duty to the end. NASA hopes to capture the juicy details of the collision before, during and after impact, so “in its final moments,” says the Johns Hopkins University overview, “DART’s DRACO camera will help characterize the site of the impact. impact by providing high-resolution scientific images of the impact. surface of Dimorphos “.