NASA is just days away from a spacecraft hitting an asteroid 7 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.
The agency’s long-awaited double asteroid redirection test (Arrow) The mission will affect the asteroid moon Demorphos on Monday (September 26), if all goes according to plan. The DART mission began on November 23, 2021 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and is now hurtling through deep space toward the near-Earth binary asteroid (65803) Didymos and the moon Demorphos.
The mission, directed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), is humanity’s first attempt to determine if we can alter the course of an asteroid, a feat that may one day be required to save human civilization. While changing the orbit of an asteroid 7 million miles away sounds frightening, DART team members from NASA and JHUAPL said during a briefing Thursday (Sept. 22) that they are confident that years of planning spent on the mission will lead to success.
Related: NASA’s DART asteroid impact mission will be a major test of planetary defense
Traveling at 4.1 miles per second (6.6 km/sec), or 14,760 mph (23,760 km/h), the DART spacecraft will impact the 560-foot-wide (170-meter) Demorphos, a small, rotating moon About the other member of the binary. system, the 2,600-foot-wide (780 m) asteroid Didymos.
NASA believes that doing so would alter the orbital period of Demorphos enough to alter its gravitational effects on the larger Didymus, altering the pair’s trajectory.
Catherine Calvin While DART will be a major test of a “kinetic impact” planetary defense strategy, the mission will also produce valuable science that will allow astronomers to delve deeper into the solar system’s deep history, said NASA’s chief scientist and senior climate advisor.
“We search asteroids to make sure we don’t find ourselves in their path. We also study asteroids to learn more about the formation and history of our solar system. Every time we see an asteroid, we catch a glimpse of a fossil from the early solar system,” Calvin said.
“These remnants capture a time when planets like Earth were forming,” she added. “Asteroids and other small objects also introduced water, and other components of life to Earth as it matured. We study them to learn more about the history of our solar system.”
Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, said DART marked a turning point in the history of the human race.
“This is an exciting time, not just for the agency, but for space history and human history,” Johnson said during Thursday’s briefing. “It’s frankly the first time we’ve been able to demonstrate that we not only have the knowledge of the dangers posed by these asteroids and comets left behind by the formation of the solar system, but that we also have the technology that we can shift one of the internal pathways to impact on Earth. So this demonstration is very important for our future.” ”
Tom Statler, a DART program scientist at NASA, echoed that sentiment. “The first test is a test of our ability to build an independently piloted spacecraft that will actually achieve the kinetic impact on the asteroid. The second test is a test of how the actual asteroid responds to the kinetic impact,” Statler said. “Because at the end of the day, the real question is: How effective is an asteroid moving, and can this kinetic impact technology be used in the future if we need to?”
Read more: DART Asteroid Mission: NASA’s First Planetary Defense Spacecraft
The result of the DART mission on Monday (September 26) will certainly help answer that question, and several members of the DART team shared their confidence in the mission during the briefing. Edward ReynoldsAnd the The spacecraft is ready to smash itself into pieces on the surface of Dimorphos when the time comes, said JHUAPL’s DART project manager.
“What we can say at this point is that all of the subsystems on the spacecraft are green, they’re healthy, and they’re working very well,” Reynolds said. “We have a lot of fuel and we have a lot of power.” “We’ve had a bunch of drills, and some of the drills are very symbolic.”
“At this point I can say the team is ready,” Reynolds added. “Ground systems are ready, the spacecraft is in good health and on track to impact on Monday.”
Engineers on the DART team are carefully monitoring the spacecraft’s trajectory over the coming days leading up to the collision, which should occur at 7:14 p.m. EDT (2314 GMT) on Monday (September 26). Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at JHUAPL, said the team is still making sure the encountered spacecraft is on its way.
“For the next couple of days, we’re actually still doing some trajectory correction maneuvers to make sure we’re on the right track to hit the asteroid,” Adams said. “We’ve trained a lot. But as we go through the cruise phase, we’re updating the parameters on the spacecraft to make sure we can actually hit the asteroid. And so in the last couple of days, we’ll be updating these parameters; we’re going to do the checks like the image stream back to Earth.” “
“So in the next few days, we’ll take more pictures of the Didymos system, do lane correction maneuvers, and then in the 24 hours before impact, everything is on board,” she added.
Adams said the team has 21 contingencies in the event that DART’s Small Body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation (Smart Nav) system determines that the spacecraft is out of course. “We’ve got everything planned, and we’re ready to step in. We’ve been training for this for some time.”
The 21 contingency planned by the team is the survival of DART. Adams says the team will immediately begin processing the data collected by the spacecraft and planning a potential impact on other organisms if DART loses dimorphos.
“We will sit back in our seats and start preserving all the data on the plane if we miss it. And we will have time with our deep space network right after that to be able to have all of that,” Adams said. “And then we will start to conserve fuel.” And we’ll start looking for it [other] Objects for reference.
In response to a question from Space.com regarding any test flight the team has conducted, Adams cited a recent set of images from the DRACO spacecraft’s DART camera. Captured Jupiter and its four major moons in Galileo. The DART team took the pictures to “fool” the DART spacecraft’s SMART Nav system so that its tracking capabilities could be tested.
“We’ve already seen Europa emerge from behind Jupiter,” Adams said. “Our clever navigator tricked us that Jupiter was Didymus and Europa was Demorphos, and we actually watched the separation happen.”
This is important, she added, “because in the last four hours during the final phase, when the spacecraft is completely autonomous, we’ll see Demorphos come out from behind Didymus. So, we’ve already trained the system to do that in flight. So we’re looking forward to that, and I think we can to do that “.
Statler reiterated that confidence, adding that while this type of mission was once fictional stuff, the DART team believes we now have the tools and knowledge to carry out a successful planetary defense mission.
“We’re moving an asteroid,” Statler said. “We’re changing the motion of a normal celestial body in space.” “Humanity has never done that before. And that’s the stuff of science fiction books, really cliched episodes of ‘Star Trek’ when I was a kid. And now it’s a reality. And it’s kind of amazing that we’re already doing that and what bodes well for the future: what we can do, in addition To our discussions of what humanity should do.
“It opens up amazing frontiers,” he added. “It’s very exciting.”
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