NASA is just days away from launching a spacecraft onto an asteroid 11 million miles from Earth.
The agency’s long-awaited double asteroid redirect test (DART) The mission will impact the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos on Monday (September 26), if all goes as planned. The DART mission launched Nov. 23, 2021 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and is now hurtling through deep space to the near-Earth binary asteroid (65803) Didymos and its moon Dimorphos.
The mission, which is managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), is humanity’s first attempt to determine if we could alter the course of an asteroid, a feat that could one day be necessary to save human civilization. While changing the orbit of an asteroid 7 million kilometers away sounds daunting, NASA and JHUAPL DART team members told a news conference on Thursday (Sept. 22) that they are confident that the years of planning that have gone into the mission will lead to success.
Related: NASA’s DART asteroid impact mission will be a key test of planetary defense
Moving at speeds of 4.1 miles per second (6.6 km/s), or 14,760 mph (23,760 km/h), the DART spacecraft will impact the 560-foot-wide (170-meter) Dimorphos, a moon that orbits the other member of its binary system, the 2,600-foot-wide (780 m) asteroid Didymos.
According to NASA, this will alter Dimorphos’ orbital period enough to alter its gravitational effects on the larger Didymos, thereby altering the pair’s trajectory.
Catherine Calvin, chief scientist and senior climate adviser at NASA said that while DART will be a key test of this “kinetic impact” planetary defense strategy, the mission will also produce valuable science that will allow astronomers to look back on history. deep in the solar system.
“We study asteroids to make sure we don’t get in their way. We also study asteroids to learn more about the formation and history of our solar system. Every time we see an asteroid, we catch a glimpse of an early solar system fossil,” Calvin said.
“These remnants capture a time when planets like Earth were forming,” she added. “Asteroids and other small bodies also delivered water, other ingredients of life to Earth as it matured. We study them to learn more about the history of our solar system.”
NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson said DART marks a turning point in the history of the human species.
“This is an exciting time, not just for the agency, but for the history of space and the history of humanity,” Johnson said during Thursday’s briefing. “This is frankly the first time that we’ve been able to demonstrate that we not only have the knowledge of the dangers posed by these asteroids and comets that remain from the formation of the solar system, but also the technology that we could hijack one of. an incoming course to impact the Earth, so this demonstration is extremely important for our future.
This sentiment was echoed by Tom Statler, a DART program scientist at NASA. “The first test is a test of our ability to build an autonomously guided spacecraft that will actually achieve the kinetic impact on the asteroid. The second test is a test of how the actual asteroid responds to the impact kinetics,” Statler said. “Because at the end of the day, the real question is, how efficiently did we move the asteroid, and can this kinetic impact technique be used in the future if we ever need it?”
Read more: DART asteroid mission: NASA’s first planetary defense spacecraft
The outcome of the DART mission on Monday (September 26) will certainly help answer that question, and many DART team members shared their confidence in the mission during the briefing. Edward Reynolds, The DART project manager at JHUAPL, said the spacecraft is ready to smash into pieces on the surface of Dimorphos when the time comes.
“What we can say at this point is that all of the spacecraft’s subsystems are green, they’re healthy, they’re working great. We’ve got a lot of propellant and we’ve got a lot of power,” Reynolds said. “We did a bunch of rehearsals, and some of the rehearsals are very nominal.”
“At this point, I can say the team is ready,” added Reynolds. “The ground systems are ready, and the spacecraft is healthy and on track for impact Monday.”
DART team engineers are carefully monitoring the spacecraft’s trajectory over the next few days before impact, which is expected to occur at 7:14 p.m. EDT (2314 GMT) on Monday, September 26. Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at JHUAPL, said the team is always making sure the impacting spacecraft is on track.
“Over the next two days, we’re still performing course correction maneuvers to make sure we’re on track to hit the asteroid,” Adams said. “We’ve been rehearsing a lot. But as we go through the cruise phase, we’re updating the spacecraft settings to make sure we can actually hit the asteroid. And so over the last two days, we’ll update those settings; we’ll do checks like streaming images to Earth.”
“So in the next few days we’ll be taking more images of the Didymos system, we’ll be doing course correction maneuvers, and then 24 hours before impact, it’s all on deck,” she added.
Adams said the team has 21 contingencies in place in case DART’s autonomous real-time navigation (Smart Nav) system determines the spacecraft is off course. “We have everything planned and we are ready to intervene. And we have been repeating this for some time.”
The 21st eventuality predicted by the team is the survival of DART. In the event that DART misses Dimorphos, Adams says the team will immediately begin processing data collected by the spacecraft and plan for possible impact with other objects.
“We’re going to sit back in our seats and we’re going to start keeping all the data on board if it’s missing. And we’ll have time with our Deep Space Network right after that so we can actually get all that data down,” said Adams.” And then we’ll start conserving propellant and we’ll start looking [other] objects to return to.”
In response to a question from Space.com regarding any flight tests performed by the team, Adams mentioned a recent series of images from the DRACO camera of the DART spacecraft. taken from Jupiter and its four great Galilean moons. The DART team captured the footage in order to “trick” the DART spacecraft’s SMART Nav system so that its tracking capabilities could be tested.
“We actually watched Europa come out from behind Jupiter. And we tricked our Smart Nav into saying Jupiter was Didymos and Europa was Dimorphos, and we actually watched the separation happen,” Adams said.
This is important, she added, “because in the last four hours of our terminal phase, when the spacecraft is completely autonomous, we are going to see Dimorphos emerging from behind Didymos. So we have already trained the system to do so. do in flight. So we’re looking forward to it. I think we can do it.”
Statler reiterated that confidence, adding that while this type of mission was once a fantasy, the DART team believes we now have the tools and knowledge to carry out a successful planetary defense mission.
“We’re moving an asteroid. We’re changing the motion of a natural celestial body in space,” Statler said. “Humanity has never done this before. And it’s the stuff of science fiction books and really cheesy ‘Star Trek’ episodes from when I was a kid. And now it’s real. And it’s pretty amazing that we’re actually doing this and what this bodes for the future: what we can do, as well as our discussions of what humanity should be doing.
“It opens up an incredible frontier,” he added. “It’s very exciting.”
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