Days after scientists launched a probe towards trojan asteroid swarms surrounding Jupiter, Nasa is gearing up for a major asteroid mission. Scientists will launch the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft to demonstrate the capability of deflecting an incoming asteroid towards Earth.
The DART spacecraft arrived in California — the final stop on Earth before being launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late November. The spacecraft reached Vandenberg Space Force Base from where it will be launched towards a binary asteroid system Didymos, which means “twin” in Greek.
“Although it was just a few days of travel, this has been a journey long coming. We are all excited and relieved to see the truck arrive safely at Vandenberg and for DART to begin its final preparations for launch,” said Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer. The spacecraft will now go through a series of final tests and checks, as well as fueling, in the next few weeks as the team prepares for DART’s scheduled launch.
The DART mission will target an asteroid as engineers and astronomers aim to create a defence system able to deflect potential asteroids headed towards Earth in future.Didymos is the ideal candidate for the first planetary defence experiment, although it is not on a path to collide with Earth and therefore poses no actual threat to the planet. The system is composed of two asteroids: the larger asteroid Didymos (diameter: 780 meters, 0.48 miles), and the smaller moonlet asteroid, Dimorphos (diameter: 160 meters, 525 feet), which orbits the larger asteroid.
Nasa said that the spacecraft will impact Dimorphos nearly head-on, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid moonlet to orbit Didymos by several minutes. The near-Earth asteroid was originally discovered in 1996 by Joe Montani of the Spacewatch Project at the University of Arizona.”We spent the last one and a half years testing DART on the ground, practising for what’s the most highly anticipated part yet: its flight to Dimorphos. We have a few more mission rehearsals to do, with the team practising spacecraft launch operations from Vandenberg in California and the APL Mission Operations Center in Maryland. Once completed, we will be ready for launch and operations,” Adams added.The intercept is scheduled for late September 2022, when the Didymos system is within 11 million kilometres of Earth, enabling observations by ground-based telescopes and planetary radars.
The spacecraft will carry a suite of onboard cameras, sophisticated autonomous navigation software to track the developments. Engineers aim to change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one per cent due to the collision. The data returned by the spacecraft will enhance the modelling and predictive capabilities for asteroid deflection. These enhancements will help better prepare against an asteroid if discovered as a threat to Earth.