DART mission will arrive at asteroid in the fall of 2022.
In October, I reported that The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would launch a test mission to nudge an asteroid’s moon in a test to see if asteroid deflection is possible to protect our planet. The experiment is called the “Double Asteroid Redirection Test.”
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the experimental system onboard successfully launched on Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
At 2:17 a.m., DART separated from the second stage of the rocket. Minutes later, mission operators received the first spacecraft telemetry data and started the process of orienting the spacecraft to a safe position for deploying its solar arrays. About two hours later, the spacecraft completed the successful unfurling of its two, 28-foot-long, roll-out solar arrays. They will power both the spacecraft and NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial ion engine, one of several technologies being tested on DART for future application on space missions.
…DART’s one-way trip is to the Didymos asteroid system, which comprises a pair of asteroids. DART’s target is the moonlet, Dimorphos, which is approximately 530 feet (160 meters) in diameter. The moonlet orbits Didymos, which is approximately 2,560 feet (780 meters) in diameter.
Since Dimorphos orbits Didymos at much a slower relative speed than the pair orbits the Sun, the result of DART’s kinetic impact within the binary system can be measured much more easily than a change in the orbit of a single asteroid around the Sun.
The mission results from a 2005 congressional directive, assigning NASA a role in security…albeit on a planetary scale.
The $324 million DART mission is unusual for NASA, a civilian agency that focuses mainly on exploration, climate monitoring and hunting for signs of past life in our solar system. While it coordinates with and relies on the U.S. Department of Defense for some activities, NASA has not traditionally been responsible for leading efforts to protect the United States — or Earth, for that matter — from any security threat.
That changed in 2005, when Congress assigned the agency the imperative of protecting the planet from dangerous objects that orbit the sun and have the bad habit of occasionally crossing paths with our world. That includes tracking tens of thousands of so-called near-Earth asteroids large enough to wreak catastrophic damage. Lawmakers assigned NASA the task of cataloging 90 percent of the total expected amount of these space rocks, but it has missed that goal.
“You’ve got to find them before you can get them, and you want to find them early,” said Kelly Fast, who manages NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, the agency’s effort to keep an eye on all nearby asteroids that are bigger than a football stadium. “You want to find these things years or decades in advance.
And while DART won’t reach the test asteroid until late September or early October of 2022, there will still be much activity during the trip over.
…DART is now in the commissioning period, a 30-day stretch just after liftoff in which mission team members are checking out the spacecraft’s various systems and its main scientific instrument, a camera called DRACO (“Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation”).
And DRACO will open its eyes soon, if all goes according to plan.
“We’re going to open the DRACO doors and … take [our] first pictures about eight days in,” Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said during a pre-launch news conference on Nov. 4.
Another big moment will come about 20 days into flight, Adams said, when the DART team fires up NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial (NEXT-C) engine, which was developed by the agency’s Glenn Research Center and the aerospace company Aerojet Rocketdyne.
NEXT-C is a solar-powered ion propulsion system that could find its way onto future spacecraft. It’s not DART’s primary propulsion system — the probe is using a set of 12 hydrazine thrusters to make its way toward the Didymos-Dimorphos pair — but NEXT-C will get a key in-space test during the mission.
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