NASA team is confident it will successfully kill its DART spacecraft after an asteroid collision

Usually associated with bad news, hearing the phrase “signal loss” will be a reason to celebrate for the team behind NASA’s DART spacecraft scheduled to crash into an asteroid on Monday.

Most NASA spacecraft last for years or even decades, but not the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission. This space robot has a date with death.

NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson told reporters Thursday that he is “very confident” that DART will achieve its goal and be a success.

After launching last fall with SpaceX, the aircraft-sized spacecraft chased the Didymos binary asteroid system to test a game plan to save Earth when a giant space rock makes its way to our planet. The method known as the kinetic impactor theory involves using DART as a ram at 15,000 mph and crashing into the moonlit Dimorphos, which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos.


DART mission systems engineer Elena Adams with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which runs the mission for NASA, explains about 4 hours before impact, DART will work autonomously to achieve its end.

Using a relative navigation system called SMART Nav, DART will focus on Didymos about an hour before impact, and then slowly, the smaller Dimorphos will come into focus. The spacecraft will send images at about one image per second.

“You will hear us say, ‘We’re precision lockdown, which means we’re starting to ignore Didymos now and we’re going to Dimorphos … Then two and a half minutes before impact Smart NAV … it’ll shut down, and we’ll aim the camera and we will take the most incredible photos of this asteroid that we will see for the first time, “said Adams.

Dimorphos, only about 530 feet wide, will not be fully in focus and clear until moments before impact. The last image will be taken approximately 2.5 seconds before DART flies into the asteroid. Due to the 8-second delay from the DART signal to Earth, the photos will continue to arrive at the Mission Operations Center in Maryland.

As DART sends the images to the end, its companion satellite, a tiny Italian CubeSat called LICIACube, will fly past the asteroid and continue to send images in the days and months following the impact. The James Webb Space Telescope, ground observatories and other spacecraft will also be able to observe the impact of the asteroid from a distance.

While this has never been done before, NSA DART scientist Tom Statler says the team has a good idea of ​​what happens when a spacecraft is run against an asteroid due to NASA and Japanese Space Agency missions on others. asteroids.

“We know DART will be stopped by Dimorphos for a reason,” Statler said. “The density of the DART spacecraft is actually not that different from the density of an asteroid. And so there’s no question that DART will encounter a lot of material that it can’t get out of the way.”

DART will not change Didymos’s orbit. It aims to change the speed of the moonlet, Dimorphos, by only a small percentage.

“We are moving an asteroid. We are changing the movement of a natural celestial body in space,” Statler said. “Humanity has never done this before … this is science fiction stuff.”


DART project manager Edward Reynolds said he won’t lose sleep from the impending impact because the team has been running simulations and testing the spacecraft’s navigation since launch, but that doesn’t mean hitting a 100-meter-diameter asteroid at 14,000 mph is not a difficult task.

“We do things because they are difficult. We are at the point where technology is emerging so that we can use these emerging technologies to protect ourselves from these threats,” said Reynolds. “I think we have prepared for this moment, but I don’t care about the spacecraft. I don’t care about the algorithm.”

If DART does its job, it will stop sending a signal after 7pm ET on Monday.

“And then we’ll celebrate,” Adams said.

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