In November 2021, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) robotic spacecraft took off into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on a mission to intercept and change the orbit of an asteroid. Now it’s finally time to see the mission in action.
The $325 million spacecraft has traveled 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth since November and Monday, Sept. 26, it will attempt its goal of crashing into Dimorphos, a small asteroid that orbits a second, larger piece of space rock, Didymos, as the pair travels in an elliptical orbit around the sun.
While there was never any threat of Dimorphos hitting Earth, it provides a safe target for testing technology that someday might help to protect Earth from a catastrophic collision with a killer asteroid, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and 75 percent of plant and animal life 66 million years ago.
When it reaches Dimorphos Monday, DART will slam into the space rock at a speed of about 4.1 miles (6.6 kilometers) per second, hopefully giving the asteroid enough of a jolt to alter its orbit around its partner, just slightly, but enough that the alteration can be observed by telescopes on Earth.
“It’s a difficult job,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Julie Bellerose said in a press statement. She leads JPL’s DART spacecraft navigation team. “A big part of what the navigation team is working on is getting DART to a 9-mile-wide (15-kilometer-wide) box in space 24 hours before impact.” Then, Bellerose said, the mission’s final trajectory correction maneuver will be executed by mission control on Earth. From then on, everything else is up to DART.
“DART is a test of the effectiveness of the kinetic impactor technique for altering an asteroid’s orbital path, and of the spacecraft technology used to deliver a kinetic impactor to the target asteroid,” Lindley Johnson, NASA planetary defense officer, explains via email.
Here are five things you should know about DART.
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