NASA is gearing up for the launch of its first planetary defence test, which will involve a spacecraft intentionally crashing into an asteroid to impact its trajectory. The US agency has filled the spacecraft with fuel, performed some final tests, and is running rehearsals for the final mission. Named Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the mission is set to take off on November 23. It will attempt to hit the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. It should be noted that none of the asteroids pose any threat to Earth. NASA will monitor the mission from Earth-based telescopes and gather data that will enhance modeling and predictive capabilities to help us better prepare for an actual asteroid threat.
Dimorphous, the target asteroid, means “two forms” in Greek and is about 525 feet (160m) in diameter. The crash will not destroy the asteroid but only give it a nudge to deflect its path, scientists said. But it’s not yet clear how much deflection the crash will cause. It will largely depend on the composition of the asteroid or how porous it is.
Scientists and engineers have worked on DART during the pandemic. They outfitted the spacecraft with the various technologies that the mission will test. One of them would be the NEXT-C ion propulsion system that is aimed at improving performance and fuel efficiency for deep-space missions. “It’s a miracle what this team has accomplished, with all of the obstacles in the way like COVID and the development of so many new technologies,” Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, said in a blog post.
Starting November 10, NASA engineers will start “mating” the spacecraft to the adapter that sits on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket will roll out of the hangar and onto the launchpad at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California a day before launch. The first launch opportunity for the DART mission opens up on November 23. If for some reasons, including inclement weather, the launch is delayed, the team will look at the second opportunity the next day.