SpaceX will soon launch the world’s first planetary defense demonstration mission for NASA. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will be NASA's debut demo flight to test technology that could protect Earth from a potential asteroid threat. The agency wants to test whether intentionally crashing a spacecraft could deflect an asteroid on a collision course with our planet.
SpaceX will launch NASA’s DART spacecraft on November 23rd towards the binary asteroid system ‘Didymos’ that has a moonlet called ‘Dimorphos’. The spacecraft will lift off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Launch Complex-4 in California at 10:20 p.m. PST (date is subject to change). The spacecraft will separate from the launch vehicle and cruise for over a year in outer space until arriving at the binary asteroid system in mid-September. It will intercept the Didymos’ moonlet sometime between September 26, 2022 to October 2, 2022. During the interception period the Didymos system will be within 11 million kilometers of Earth. Astronomers will observe the impact with ground-based telescopes and radar.
Source: NASA DART
The larger asteroid, Didymos, measures about 2,540 feet (775 meters) wide, Dimorphos measures 540 feet (165 meters) across. The asteroids pose no threat to Earth, NASA will only test their space defense method and technology. The DART vehicle will attempt to change the course of the smaller asteroid by deliberately crashing into it at a speed of approximately 6.6 km/s (kilometers per second) with the aid of an onboard camera, called DRACO, and high-tech autonomous navigation software. “The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, but this will change the orbital period of the moonlet by several minutes - enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth,” NASA representatives said.
NASA started working on pre-flight checkouts this week. On Tuesday, October 26, NASA teams transported the DART spacecraft from the Astrotech Space Operations Facility to the SpaceX Payload Processing Facility (PPF). Then on Wednesday, technicians performed a test to ensure DART is operating well (pictured below). “Inside the PPF, three days of hazardous operations will take place beginning on October 28 as launch day nears. They include setup, fueling of the spacecraft with hydrazine, pressurization, and cleanup,” the agency shared.
“Fueling is always a major milestone to reach during launch site processing because we don’t fuel until it is getting real,” said NASA Launch Site Integration Manager Julie Schneringer, “Due to the toxicity of the fuel, we have to plan for and provide more support for this one operation more than any other single operation.” Over the next 2 weeks, NASA technicians will continue to prepare the vehicle ahead of integrating it with a payload adapter atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
DART spacecraft undergoing pre-flight preparations. / Source: NASA