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

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The illustration is of the Italian Space Agency's (ASI) DART and LCIACube spacecraft before colliding in the Didymos binary system.

Illustration of the Italian Space Agency’s DART and LICIACube spacecraft before colliding in the Didymos binary system.NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribbin

A spacecraft the size of a golf cart will intentionally crash into a small asteroid at 14,000 miles per hour on September 26. It’s humanity’s first test of our ability to deflect the next dangerous space rock.

NASA currently knows the location and orbit of approximately 28,000 nearby asteroids. To be clear, scientists have not found any asteroid that poses a direct threat to human civilization. But experts say it’s a question of when — not whether — the Earth finds itself on the right track to be affected by one.

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

“I am very confident that we will strike on Monday and that there will be complete success,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s first planetary defense officer, told reporters at a Thursday briefing.

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

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

On Monday, September 26, four hours before impact, DART will switch to standalone mode, orienting itself toward its goal. If all goes according to plan, the 1,376-pound spacecraft will collide with Dimorphos, slightly changing its orbit around Didymos. Scientists expect the collision to change Dimorphos’ speed by 1%.

(The asteroid’s name, Dimorphos, is Greek because it “has two shapes” and was chosen because the asteroid would have one shape before DART struck it, and another shape after it.)

Demorphos is about 525 feet in diameter, and orbits another larger asteroid – Didymos which is 2,650 feet wide.

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

According to NASA, the asteroid system poses no threat to Earth, which makes it the ideal target to test our ability to collide with asteroids, in order to change their orbit, and keep them away from Earth’s path.

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

Animation from behind as NASA’s first planetary defense test mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, collides with asteroid moon Demorphos.NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / John Emmerich

While the spacecraft will not survive the encounter, its only scientific instrument — the Didymus reconnaissance camera and the Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (Draco) — will be powered on for a dead dive, taking one image per second documenting the impact and its consequences.

“We are excited about what DRACO will reveal about Didymus and Demorphos in the hours and minutes leading up to the impact,” said Caroline Ernst, DRACO instrumentation scientist at APL, in a press release.

About three minutes or so after the collision, a shoebox-sized CubeSat developed by the Italian space agency, LICIACube, will capture high-resolution images of the event. On September 11, the CubeSat left the spacecraft and is now at a safe distance of about 34 miles from the surface of Demorphos.

Graph showing the effect of the DART effect over the course of Dimorphos.

Graph showing the effect of the DART effect over the course 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 disappears, images that travel through space will continue to appear for about eight seconds,” Ed Reynolds, DART project manager, told reporters Thursday.

Once DART is destroyed during the impact, follow-up observations using ground and space-based telescopes will evaluate the asteroid system to see how much its orbit has changed.

The mission data will provide astronomers with important information about how well the spacecraft can protect Earth from an incoming asteroid, and inform any modifications that need to be made to the probe.

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

Read the original article on Business Insider

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