SpaceX launched NASA’s first planetary defense mission led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will test asteroid deflection technology to defend Earth against future potential asteroid impacts by intentionally crashing a spacecraft into a binary asteroid system to determine whether a collision could effectively change a small asteroid’s orbital speed. “DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth,” he said. A previously-flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket ignited the night sky on Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. EST as it lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, propelling the DART spacecraft to orbit.
Liftoff! pic.twitter.com/Kx5n6TwriC— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 24, 2021
Approximately 8-minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster, identified as B1067-3, returned from outer space and landed on the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ autonomous droneship along California’s coast in the Pacific Ocean, “completing SpaceX's 95th successful recovery of an orbital class rocket booster,” SpaceX announced. Booster B1067-3 previously supported the launch of NASA’s Michael Freilich Sentinel-6 Earth observation satellite and a Starlink satellite fleet deployment. Now, SpaceX plans to reuse the booster once again after the successful recovery. Engineers plan to use each Falcon 9 first-stage booster in its fleet at least 10 times to significantly decrease the cost of spaceflight.
Falcon 9’s first stage booster landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship, completing SpaceX's 95th successful recovery of an orbital class rocket booster pic.twitter.com/tEn34tlVqE— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 24, 2021
The DART spacecraft was released almost an hour after liftoff, it initiated a 10-month-long journey towards the ‘Dimorphos’ asteroid which orbits a larger asteroid named ‘Didymos’. The agency expects DART to arrive to the binary asteroid system sometime between September 26 and October 1, 2022. For scale perspective, the DART spacecraft is around the size of a large school bus with open solar panels. The Dimorphos asteroid is 530-feet in diameter, around the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And the Didymos asteroid has a diameter of 2,560-feet, as large as the One World Trade Center tower in New York City, according to a graphic the agency shared (pictured below). The DART spacecraft will smash into Dimorphos at a speed of approximately 15,000 miles per hour. NASA scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes.
Ten days before arrival DART will release a small satellite that is designed to take photos of the impact event. The satellite is a CubeSat called 'LICIACube,' manufactured by the Italian Space Agency. The country is collaborating with NASA on the world’s first asteroid defense test mission. DART project leaders said that the spacecraft operates autonomously, it will intercept the asteroid when their orbits are around 11 million kilometers away from Earth. Astronomers will also use ground-based telescopes and radar to gather data of the collision effects. Around a week from now, the DART spacecraft will begin to relay camera data to researchers on Earth as it cruises outside of our planet’s orbit around the Sun.
“We have not yet found any significant asteroid impact threat to Earth, but we continue to search for that sizable population we know is still to be found. Our goal is to find any possible impact, years to decades in advance, so it can be deflected with a capability like DART that is possible with the technology we currently have,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters. “DART is one aspect of NASA’s work to prepare Earth should we ever be faced with an asteroid hazard. In tandem with this test, we are preparing the Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, an space-based infrared telescope scheduled for launch later this decade and designed to expedite our ability to discover and characterize the potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.”
“It is an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve been involved with since the ‘words on paper’ stage become real and launched into space,” said Andy Cheng, one of the DART investigation leads at Johns Hopkins APL. Cheng is who came up with the idea of the planetary defense DART mission. “This is just the end of the first act, and the DART investigation and engineering teams have much work to do over the next year preparing for the main event ─ DART’s kinetic impact on Dimorphos. But tonight we celebrate!” If you missed the launch, you can watch the entire SpaceX NASA DART broadcast in the video linked below.
VIDEO: SPACEX NASA DART MISSION
Featured Images Source: SpaceX & NASA Broadcast