DART: Redirecting asteroids for planetary defense

by Nathaniel Dela Torre || Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins/Handout via REUTERS

On the 26th of September, at 7:14 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) successfully made its impact with the asteroid Dimorphos as a part of NASA’s overall planetary defense strategy. This event turned out to be the first-ever time NASA had been able to change the motion of a celestial object and the first time it had ever demonstrated asteroid deflection technology.

NASA has deemed Earth as ‘no longer powerless’ against potential earth-bound comets and asteroids. DART serves as NASA’s first demonstration of kinetic impact as a part of its overall planetary defense strategy. This demonstration was an opportunity to test whether kinetic impact is viable in mitigating an earth-bound asteroid or comet (NASA, 2022).

As mentioned, the mission made use of the kinetic impact technique. According to NASA (2015), kinetic impaction involves sending one or more large, high-speed spacecraft into the path of an approaching near-earth object. In this case, the smaller DART spacecraft targeted Dimorphos, a moonlet of a larger asteroid named Didymos, in hopes of redirecting its orbit. 

Before the collision, Dimorphos takes around 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit its larger parent asteroid, Didymos. The mission aimed to alter the smaller asteroid’s orbit by at least 73 seconds or more. It is important to note that neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth.

On November 23, 2021, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched, and carrying along with it was the DART spacecraft. The launch took place at the Space Launch Complex 4E, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The DART spacecraft itself is low-cost, with dimensions of roughly 1.8 meters in width, 1.9 meters in length, and 2.6 meters in height.

On September 11, a spacecraft was ejected from DART. This spacecraft is called Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids (LICIACube), and its primary purpose was to capture photos of the collision up close. The impact was successfully made on the 26th of September the following year, 10 months after the initial launch. Two days after the collision, on September 28, LICIACube uploaded its first images of the event. They will be used to add relevant information about the generated plume. 

After two weeks of looking into the results of the mission, NASA held a media brief that occurred on Tuesday, October 11. The agency revealed that the DART mission has successfully altered Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes, shortening the asteroid’s orbit to 11 hours and 23 minutes. DART’s investigation team will continue to look into the images produced by LICIACube and other ground-based observatories.

DART’s success proves to be another leap for mankind as we prepare to defend ourselves from potential disasters. This first step towards planetary defense opens up more possibilities and more potential missions in the near future.

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