NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid next week

NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid next week

A golf cart-sized spacecraft will intentionally crash into a tiny asteroid at about 14,000 miles per hour on September 26. It is humanity’s first test of our ability to deflect dangerous incoming space rocks.

NASA currently knows the position and orbit of about 28,000 nearby asteroids. To be clear, scientists have not found any asteroids that pose a direct threat to human civilization. But experts say it’s a matter of when — not if — Earth is on track to be hit by one.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in November 2021, aiming to nudge a space rock into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion asteroid. It’s a test of whether such a boost could one day deflect a rogue space rock headed for Earth. The $308 million spacecraft traveled 6.8 million miles from Earth to Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting the asteroid Gemini.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to hit on Monday and that we’re going to be absolutely successful,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s top planetary defense officer, said at a news conference Thursday.

This image of light from the asteroid Gemini and its orbiting moon Dimorpho is a composite of 243 images taken by the Gemini Recognition and Asteroid Navigation Optical Camera (DRACO) on July 27, 2022.

This image of light from the asteroid Gemini and its moon orbiting Dimorphos is a composite of 243 images taken by the Gemini Asteroid Reconnaissance and Visual Navigation Camera on July 27, 2022.

NASA’s JPL DART Navigation Team



On Monday, September 26, four hours before impact, DART will go into autonomous mode, heading for its target. If all goes according to plan, the 1,376-pound spacecraft will collide with Dimorph, changing its orbit around Gemini ever so slightly. Scientists expect the collision to change Dimorphos’ speed by a fraction of 1%.

(The asteroid’s name, Dimorphos, is Greek for “having two forms” and was chosen because the asteroid will have one form before DART crashes into it and another form after.)

Dimorphos is about 525 feet in diameter and orbits another, larger asteroid – the 2,650-foot-wide Gemini.

According to Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer, the team will know that DART has successfully broken into Dimorphos when they lose the spacecraft’s signal. “We’re all going to celebrate,” Adams told reporters Thursday.

The asteroid system poses no threat to Earth, according to NASA, making it the perfect target to test our ability to strike asteroids in order to alter their orbits and move them out of Earth’s path.

An animation looking back as NASA's first planetary defense test mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), collides with the asteroid moon Dimorphos.

A behind-the-scenes animation as NASA’s first planetary defense test mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, collides with the asteroid’s moon Dimorphos.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Jon Emmerich



While the spacecraft will not survive the encounter, its only science instrument — the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) — will be activated for the death dive, taking one image per second to document the impact and its aftermath.

“We are excited about what DRACO will reveal about Gemini and Dimorphos in the hours and minutes before impact,” Carolyn Ernst, DRACO instrument scientist at APL, said in a press release.

About three minutes after the collision, a shoebox-sized CubeSat developed by the Italian Space Agency, LICACube, will take high-resolution images of the event. On September 11, the CubeSat left the spacecraft and is now safely about 34 miles from Dimorph’s surface.

Infographic showing the effect of the DART impact on Dimorphos' orbit.

Infographic showing the effect of the DART impact on Dimorphos’ orbit.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL



A live stream of images taken by the spacecraft will be available on NASA’s website starting at 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday, September 26. The impact is expected to occur around 7:14 p.m. ET.

“Even after DART is gone, images traveling through space will continue to come back for about eight seconds,” Ed Reynolds, DART’s project manager, told reporters Thursday.

Once DART is destroyed in the collision, subsequent observations with telescopes on the ground and in space will assess the asteroid system to see how much its orbit has changed.

The mission’s data will provide astronomers with important information about how well the spacecraft could protect Earth from an incoming asteroid and will inform any adjustments that need to be made to the probe.

Two years after DART collided with Dimorphos, the European Space Agency will launch a mission called Hera to study Gemini and Dimorphos in depth. By observing the deformations caused by the impact, the spacecraft aims to better understand the composition and formation of Dimorphos.

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