NASA planning to crash an uncrewed rocket into an asteroid for research purposes

  • NASA plans on sending the DART(Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission to crash into a binary asteroid system near Earth.
  • The spacecraft is expected to crash into the asteroid Dimorphos and change its orbit.
  • This mission will become the foundation for future defense endeavors to protect the Earth from dangerous asteroids.

NASA is planning to send a rocket into space but this time with a very different motive – To crash into an asteroid. This event could potentially help in formulating research to create a plan of action to prevent dangerous asteroids from destroying the Earth in the future.

The strategy of the DART mission

On November 23, NASA will launch its ambitious project called DART(Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. This launch will be carried out on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The spacecraft will launch aboard the Falcon 9 rocket and is expected to reach its desired destination by the fall season. This destination is located on a binary asteroid system near our Earth. Said asteroid system is composed of two-component members, Didymos and Dimorphous. Didymos is nearly 800 meters in length and it is orbited by a moonlet named Dimorphos, which is 160 meters long. Dimorphous is DART’s target.

DART, which resembles a car-sized box with two wing-like solar panels, will try to crash against the asteroid Dimorphos and in the process change its orbit within the binary system. Initially, after the collision DART’s momentum will get transferred to Dimorphos, and leave behind an impact crater. Also, this event will cause a shift in the moonlet’s almost-12-hour orbit around Didymos by at least 73 seconds.

CubeSat, a camera-based system released by DART 10 days prior, will observe the crash up close. Scientists believe the event will be a soundless affair and with the image transmitting technology of CubeSat, ground-based astronomers will be able to keep an eye on the unfolding of events. Furthermore, with CubeSat, the DART Investigation Team will
analyze the results of the crash and keep a check on the binary asteroid system till it fades out of view by Spring 2023.

Reasons for choosing Dimorphous

Astronomers debated upon a number of target candidates for DART but finally settled on Dimorphous. This decision can be attributed to several reasons. The first is one of safety, changing Dimorphos’s orbit cannot change the orbit of Didymos to put it on an intersecting path with Earth. The second is the ease of study and monitoring. The binary asteroid system is arranged as such that Dimorphos is a bit like the hand on a massive clock, with Didymos in the clock’s center. After the collision, the astronomers on Earth will be able to visualize the “hand” and be able to define if it’s ticking around the clock differently. Meaning, just two months of observations will reveal how effective the deflection and hence the success of the DART mission has been.

Aim of the DART mission

The primary aim of doing the DART exercise is to effectively see if this procedure of crashing into asteroids is worthwhile in its attempt to provide future planetary defense against stray heavenly bodies.

The asteroid Dimorphous isn’t really a threat to our Blue Planet. This mission, which will operate in space for just 10 months, is simply a test to check how effective this system is and whether it is free of risks. However, the DART mission is quite a groundbreaking approach as it sets up a new foundation of a defense system against stray astral objects in space which can be a threat to our planet.

The things which may go wrong

On the surface, the DART experiment seems really simple but only one certain thing is no outcome is assured. This is because so many of Dimorphos’s fundamental properties remain unknown.

Most of the assumptions used to formulate the DART mission are purely academic. Scientists are still scratching their heads over the fact that not many details are known about Dimorphos’ appearance. The shape of the asteroid is of critical importance since the primary mission for DART is to crash into it. Also, the surface composition of the asteroid remains a mystery as well. Scientists may assume it’s a solid form but in space anything is possible. A very prominent example is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft which traveled to the asteroid Bennu in 2020 to grab some rock samples. The spacecraft almost sank into the target spot as the surface composition of the asteroid was described as that of “melted butter”.

Another major thing that could go wrong with the DART mission is its objective itself. The plan is to nudge Dimorphos to shift its orbit in a certain direction. However, there’s a huge possibility that instead of getting shifted upon impact with the spacecraft, the asteroid might simply collapse and break off into a number of rock fragments simply flying off in space.

While Dimorphos might not be a threat to Earth, for future defense purposes when such procedures are used on potentially dangerous asteroids, this could spell trouble. The asteroid might just be shifted to a locus which puts it dangerously close to the Earth’s orbit.

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