NASA makes final preparations to crash spacecraft into asteroid

NASA makes final preparations to crash spacecraft into asteroid

US space agency NASA is making final preparations to crash a spacecraft into a asteroid in the world’s first planetary defense test.

The assignment is called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. The DART spacecraft launched on its journey to the asteroid last November. On September 26, he will aim to hit the asteroid to see how the crash affects the space object’s trajectory.

The test is designed to demonstrate a possible method for changing the direction of asteroids considered threats to Earth.

The mission target will be an asteroid called Dimorphos, which is part of a two-body asteroid system. Dimorphos is a small “moonlet” that orbits a larger asteroid named Didymos. Didymos is around 780 meters in diameter, while Dimorphos is 160 meters.

This image shows light from the asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moon Dimorphos. This is a combination of 243 images taken by the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) on July 27, 2022. (Image credits: NASA JPL DART Navigation Team)

The asteroid system poses no danger to Earth. But NASA says it is being targeted as a more efficient way to test the crash method instead of hitting a single flying asteroid in space.

The purpose of the DART mission is to see how the spacecraft crash will redirect the asteroid’s trajectory and velocity. The crash will occur about 11 million kilometers from Earth.

Currently, Dimorphos orbits Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The distance between the centers of the two asteroids is 1.18 kilometers. The DART spacecraft will aim to hit Dimorphos almost head-on. When that happens, it will shorten the time it takes for the small asteroid to orbit Didymos by several minutes, NASA says.

Telescopes on Earth will measure the change in orbital period.

NASA engineers said they were hoping for a change of at least 73 seconds for the mission to be considered a success.

DART team members carefully inspect the spacecraft before performing vibration tests in July 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team members carefully inspect the spacecraft before performing vibration tests in July 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the DART spacecraft had had its first glimpse of the asteroid system. A series of images were taken July 27 by an imaging instrument on the spacecraft. The images showed the light emitted by the Didymos system.

NASA said that at the time the images were captured, the spacecraft was approximately 32 million kilometers from the two asteroids. This made it difficult to see much of the Didymos system. But once the images were combined and reviewed, the team was able to improve the quality of the image and identify its location.

Elena Adams is a DART Mission Systems Engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. She said: ‘This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imagery techniques.” Adams added that the imaging instrument is what will guide the DART spacecraft to its asteroid target.

DART team members install and inspect the spacecraft's only DART instrument - the Didymos Asteroid and Reconnaissance Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) - on the spacecraft in June 2021. (Image credit: NASA /Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team members install and inspect the spacecraft’s only DART instrument – the Didymos Asteroid and Reconnaissance Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) – on the spacecraft in June 2021. (Image credit: NASA /Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

In the final hours before the crash, the spacecraft will need to view and process images of the asteroid system as it moves on its own to the target without human intervention, NASA said.

The DART operation will be captured in images taken by a CubeSat. CubeSats are small research spacecraft also known as nanosatellites.

DART team members from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and the Italian Space Agency carefully position the LICIACube in place on the DART spacecraft.  (Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team members from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and the Italian Space Agency carefully position the LICIACube in place on the DART spacecraft. (Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

The 14-kilogram CubeSat that will capture the images is called LICIACube. It is a project of the Italian Space Agency. It was designed and built by the Italian space engineering company Argotec. LICIACube is expected to be deployed from the spacecraft approximately 10 days before the crash.

LICIACube is equipped with two separate cameras. They are designed to collect scientific data and inform the CubeSat’s autoguiding system. The cameras will continuously capture the crash of the asteroid as well as the effects resulting from the operation.

DART team engineers lift and inspect the LICIACube CubeSat after it arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland in August.  The miniaturized satellite will deploy 10 days before the impact of the DART asteroid.  (Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team engineers lift and inspect the LICIACube CubeSat after it arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland in August. The miniaturized satellite will deploy 10 days before the impact of the DART asteroid. (Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Elisabetta Dotto is a member of the LICIACube scientific team at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome. She said in a statement that she and other scientists are “eagerto receive and examine the images captured by the CubeSat. “It will be so exciting to study, for the first time, the nature and structure of such weird objects like binary [near-Earth asteroids].”

I am Brian Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from NASA and The Associated Press.

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words in this story

asteroid nm a rocky object that revolves around the sun like a planet

assignment nm a flight by an aircraft or spacecraft to perform a specific task

location nm the place where something happens

technical nm a method

eager adj. to really want to do something

weird adj. very unusual or strange

binary adj. relating to two things

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