NASA's DART asteroid collision mission nears launch

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NASA's DART asteroid collision mission nears launch

NASA is set to launch a spacecraft from California on Tuesday night to smack head on into an asteroid next fall in an effort to understand how humanity could prevent such a space body from colliding with Earth.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch the DART mission, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base at 10:20 p.m. PST.

The spacecraft, about the size of a refrigerator with longer solar panels, will travel about 7 million miles to the Didymos asteroid system, where it is expected to crash next fall. Didymos poses no threat to Earth.

NASA’s $330 million mission comes 23 years after Hollywood portrayed such an asteroid deflection attempt in the blockbuster 1998 film Armageddon starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck among others.

But there are no nuclear explosives on DART as portrayed in the fictional movie. The spacecraft will attempt to alter the course of the asteroid only by a few feet just by slamming into it, said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer.

The asteroid target is actually a small satellite of Didymos named Dimorphos, about the size of a football stadium. The spacecraft is only 1,344 pounds, about the weight of an adult cow.

Given the vastness of space, such a nudge may be enough to prevent a potential collision with Earth in the future, Johnson said.

“The DART mission is one possibility of what we might do if we found an asteroid on impact course with the Earth,” Johnson said during a press conference Monday evening. “So we’re testing this kinetic impactor technique where we just ram a spacecraft into the asteroid at high velocity.”

In fact there’s nothing unique about the DART spacecraft — no reinforcement, no ramming device, said Ed Reynolds, DART project manager with Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

“The spacecraft is designed and built just as we build other spacecraft … with a lot of honeycomb aluminum to build decking structures, but there’s nothing special,” Reynolds said. “The technique is basically the mass of the spacecraft itself. You hit the asteroid with that mass, and you will have, you will have a reaction.”

He noted that the spacecraft mission will be relatively brief compared to many NASA missions.

“There’s going to be a joyfulness, but there’s also going to be just the sadness of … the spacecraft is gone,” Reynolds said. “But in the end it did what it was supposed to do.”

The main spacecraft, however, will release a tiny companion, LICIACube, before destroying itself. LICIACube will record the parent spacecraft’s final moments and beam the images and data back to Earth, according to the DART mission description.

Weather for the Tuesday night launch attempt is 90% favorable for launch, according to the U.S. Space Force. In case of a delay, SpaceX and NASA are prepared to try repeatedly over a period of 84 days.

SpaceX is tracking no problems, Julianna Scheiman, SpaceX director for civil satellite missions, said during the press conference.

“Everything on the rocket is looking great for our launch attempt,” she said.

NASA asteroid launch on Tuesday is a first step toward planetary defense
Washington DC (UPI) Nov 21, 2021 – NASA’s plan to whack an asteroid with a spacecraft, launching early Tuesday, is designed to provide insight into how humanity might prevent a collision with a planet-killing space rock, NASA officials said.

For the first time in history, a spacecraft will attempt to smash into an asteroid next fall as an experiment to show how such a space body could be deflected if it were headed toward Earth, Lori Glaze, NASA director of planetary science, said.

“I feel that once we’ve completed this test, we are going to learn an incredible amount and be so much more prepared, in the future if, indeed, a potential asteroid could pose a threat,” Glaze said.

But NASA doesn’t know if they will learn everything they need to know in order to defend Earth against such a deadly strike, officials said.

SpaceX plans to launch NASA’s DART mission, which stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, at 1:20 a.m. EST on Tuesday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Falcon 9 rocket will launch at that time or wait about 24 hours for another launch window — over a period of 84 days.

Many things are still unknown about the outcome of the test, because NASA has little knowledge of the composition of the target asteroid — Dimorphos, the size of a football stadium — said Tom Statler, NASA’s DART program scientist.

“The issue of how prepared do we actually want to be — that’s a much broader discussion to be had across governments and the nations,” Statler said. “In addition to being able to deflect an asteroid, we still need to study the sky and look for them.”

The $330 million mission will fly to the Didymos asteroid system, which actually are twin bodies circling each other. The target asteroid, Dimorphos, is a satellite of Didymos. The DART spacecraft will fly into Dimorphos at 15,000 mph, after which Earth-based telescopes will monitor how the impact changes its path.

“It’s so important that we track and monitor these small objects, as well as develop new techniques that can help us in the future to ensure that one of them and our planet Earth don’t find themselves in the same place at the same time,” Glaze said.

“This is a key test that NASA and other agencies want to perform before we have an actual need,” she said.

NASA chose the Didymos system of two asteroids because it offers a unique chance to obtain precise measurements from a small impact.

The DART spacecraft itself will be completely destroyed and throw out a cloud of debris, according to NASA, which also will help the agency measure the impact.

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