In an attempt to pull off a feat so far seen only in science fiction films, NASA is planning to launch a spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will hit a small moonlet in the binary asteroid system Didymos in September 2022.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — NASA’s first mission to demonstrate a planetary defence technique — is scheduled to be launched in mid-2021, the US space agency said on Monday.
By using solar electric propulsion, DART will intercept the target when the asteroid will be within 11 million km of Earth.
The asteroid poses no threat to Earth and is an ideal test target, NASA said.
To navigate the DART spacecraft to its intended target — a binary asteroid that consists of a small moon (Didymos B) orbiting a larger body (Didymos A) — scientists need to understand how the system behaves.
Scientists have been making efforts to observe Didymos from Earth since 2015, and now, an international campaign coordinated by Northern Arizona University’s Cristina Thomas is making critical observations using powerful telescopes worldwide to understand the state of the asteroid system before DART reaches it.
Current observations will help researchers to better understand the extent of the impact made when DART slams into its target — Didymos B — in September 2022, NASA said.
“The Didymos system is too small and too far to be seen as anything more than a point of light, but we can get the data we need by measuring the brightness of that point of light, which changes as Didymos A rotates and Didymos B orbits,” said Andy Rivkin, a co-lead of the investigation team.
The investigation team will observe Didymos again from late 2020 into the spring of 2021. Final ground-based observations will occur as the spacecraft travels toward the asteroid, as well as after impact occurs.
The total cost for NASA to launch DART is approximately $69 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs.