As NASA prepares for the world’s first planetary defense mission, it invites the public to watch as one of its spacecraft attempts to deflect an asteroid.
The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last November in a $330 million project.
DART is essentially a test of the center’s ability to defend our planet against future asteroids and other Earth-bound debris. It will intentionally make a head-on collision on September 26 with Dimorphos, an asteroid 160 meters in diameter and traveling at 24,139 kilometers per hour.
Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth, NASA clarifies, but offers scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.
“It won’t destroy the asteroid. It’ll just give him a little nudge,” said mission official Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is leading the project, during the DART launch last year.
Dimorphos completes one orbit of Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The goal of DART is a crash that will slow Dimorphos and cause it to fall closer to the larger asteroid, shortening its orbit by 10 minutes.
The change in orbital period is measured with telescopes on Earth. The minimum change for the mission to be considered successful is 73 seconds.
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NASA announced this week that it plans to livestream the event on September 26 and is inviting the public to a watch party on its social media channels.
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There will be a live briefing on Impact Day at 6:00 p.m. ET from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD, which builds and manages the DART spacecraft.
Researchers expect the kinetic impact to occur at 7:14 p.m. ET. The space agency is also hosting an in-person event to mark the occasion.
Ten days beforehand, DART will release a tiny observation spacecraft, supplied by the Italian space agency, which will follow it.
DART streams the video until it is destroyed on impact. Three minutes later, the towing vehicle will take pictures of the impact site and the ejected material. The collision will take place approximately 11 million kilometers from Earth.
“This test will show that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it to alter the asteroid’s motion in a way that can be measured with ground-based telescopes. DART will provide important data to better prepare for an asteroid that could pose an impact threat to Earth, if one is ever discovered,” NASA said in a press release.
Scientists are constantly searching for asteroids and plotting their courses to determine if they could hit the planet.
“Although there is currently no known asteroid on an impact course with Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, last year. “The key to planetary defense is finding them before they pose an impact threat.”
— With files from The Associated Press
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