NASA planning to crash spacecraft into an asteroid later this month

  • NASA to launch the DART mission which aims to crash spacecraft into Dimorphos, an asteroid near Earth.
  • The launch took place in November last year and the impact is set to occur on September 26th.
  • The success of the mission will be an important step to set up a new foundation of a defense system against asteroids.

Later this month NASA, the American Government’s premier space research organization is planning on crashing an uncrewed spacecraft into an asteroid or rather a moonlet.

In stuff that seems straight out of a sci-fi film, this mission will be focused on hitting this asteroid near Earth to change its direction of motion.

DART Mission 

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

The destination for the intended crash 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.

What will DART do?

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.

The current status

This week NASA released an image from the DRACO model of the spacecraft, where the camera is housed. In the image, one can make out the asteroid and its target moonlet, Dimorphos, as just little white dots. The predetermined crash is set to take place on September 26.

Reasons for choosing Dimorphous 

Astronomers debated upon several 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 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, that just two months of observations will reveal how effective the deflection and hence the success of the DART mission has been.

Importance of DART

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 a threat to our Blue Planet. 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.

What can go wrong? 

On the surface, the DART experiment seems simple but only one certain thing 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.

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 several 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 that puts it dangerously close to the Earth’s orbit.

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