NASA just slammed its DART spacecraft into Asteroid Dimorphos successfully.
DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. NASA designed the mission to test a planetary defense technique that we could use if we ever find a huge rock hurtling toward us.
So the spacecraft launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on November 23, 2021. It has been on its trajectory to its target until it finally crashed on Monday, September 26, 2022.
Dimorphos is a tiny asteroid, about 560 ft (170 meters) in diameter. It’s also the moon of a larger space rock, Didymos, about a half mile (780 meters). It orbits its parent asteroid every 11 hours and 55 minutes.
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DART has tested a technique called kinetic impact. That’s when you smash something large enough and fast enough into an asteroid to nudge its orbit. It’s not like Dimorphos or Didymos are going to hit us in the future.
As DART approached Dimorphos, it used its sole instruments, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation to navigate to its impact zone autonomously. And that was no easy task because the asteroid is very tiny. It’s so tiny in fact that the spacecraft didn’t even see Dimorphos until about an hour before impact at which point it was just one pixel in its field of view.
The spacecraft accelerated at about 13,400 miles per hour (21,600 kilometers per hour) when it collided with its target.
This is the first full-scale demonstration of deflection technology that can protect our planet. At the time of impact, the binary asteroid was relatively close to Earth – within 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers).
The mission team has compared this collision to a golf cart crashing into one of the Great Pyramids. That’s enough energy to leave an impact crater.
Now, NASA will monitor the tiny asteroid and see if the collision has changed the asteroid’s speed and path in space. Scientists expect the nudge will change Dimorphos’ trajectory slightly and make it more gravitationally bound to Didymos.
DART was not alone. The collision was recorded by LICIACube short for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The CubeSat’s goals are to confirm the spacecraft impact, observe the evolution of the ejected plume, potentially capture images of the newly formed impact crater, and image the opposite hemisphere of Dimorphos that DART will never see.
Also, three other space telescopes watched the event: the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble space telescope, and another NASA asteroid mission, Lucy.
NEOs or Near-Earth objects are space rocks that have been nudged by the gravity of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s neighborhood. If a NEO’s orbit crosses the Earth’s orbit and if it is larger than 140 meters (469 ft) across, it is considered a potentially hazardous object.
These objects are the primary focus of NASA and other space organizations around the world.
The DART mission was indeed a historical moment in space history and also in the history of humankind.