A success for the launch of NASA’s DART spacecraft to deflect an asteroid

The DART spacecraft blasting off atop a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA)
The DART spacecraft blasting off atop a Falcon 9 rocket (Image NASA)

A few hours ago, NASA’s DART mission was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg base. After about 56 minutes, the spacecraft successfully separated from the rocket’s last stage and set off on its way to reaching the binary asteroid Didymos to attempt to change the orbit of its satellite Dimorphos. The impact should take place in September 2022 and be monitored from Earth and the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube nanosatellite launched together with the space probe.

The progressive discovery of asteroids whose orbit crosses the Earth’s orbit has led to the awareness of the dangers of an impact. The odds are very low but a single asteroid massive enough can cause global devastation that can even lead to a mass extinction like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The use of atomic bombs to destroy dangerous asteroids or at least divert their trajectory is fine for movies but the studies have offered many doubts about their real effectiveness. Basically, the Earth is defenseless, and for this reason, serious studies have begun in recent years to develop a strategy. NASA developed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, based on the possibility of diverting the trajectory of an asteroid following the impact of a spacecraft with a mass of about 500 kilograms.

For the test, a binary asteroid was chosen, 65803 Didymos, formed by a main object about 780 meters long that has a small satellite cataloged as 65803 Dimorphos, about 160 meters long, the mission’s target. The spacecraft’s impact should change its speed very little but enough to be detectable after some time since the effects should amplify due to the trajectory change.

The DART mission was developed in collaboration with ESA but has changed over the years. The result is that NASA’s spacecraft will be accompanied by the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids) nanosatellite, which will separate from the spacecraft 10 days before the impact to monitor the effects. In 2024, the launch of ESA’s Hera mission is scheduled for a more in-depth reconnaissance.

NASA has received the first signals from the DART spacecraft, and this indicates that everything is going well after SpaceX’s first deep-space launch on behalf of NASA. We can now expect it to hit the asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022 at a speed of around 6.6 kilometers per second. This is an important test because we don’t know when the next impact on Earth of an asteroid massive enough to wreak havoc on the planet will happen, but we can be sure it will happen as it has happened many times in the past.

The DART spacecraft during the test phase (Photo NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)
The DART spacecraft during the test phase (Photo NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

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