What is Dart Mission: Why is NASA crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid?

NASA will launch its $330m Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART mission) Probe. This probe will test the agency’s ability to alter an asteroid’s trajectory using kinetic force.

It is planned to launch a robotic spacecraft at 15,000 mph into the moonlit Dimorphos and alter its trajectory by just a fraction. The mission will be a success if NASA and other agencies can deflect an asteroid headed towards Earth. This could prevent an Armageddon-style disaster.

Dart Mission
Dart Mission

What’s the deal? DART mission

The Dart spacecraft will lift off from California’s launchpad on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1.20 AM Eastern Time. NASA has an 84-day window to launch again if liftoff is delayed. It will take 10 months to travel the 6.8 miles to Dimorphos. The collision won’t take place until September or October 2022.

This is one big rock that will make a significant shift in our relationship to space. Today’s launch by NASA marks the beginning of a mission that will deliberately crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to alter its orbit. This is the first attempt to interfere in the gravitational dance between the solar system and humanity. This mission is to test drive a system of planetary defense that can prevent us from following the path of the dinosaurs. It will also provide the first data about how to deflect an Armageddon-inducing, asteroid from Earth.

Dimorphos, a planetary body about the size of a football field, orbits Didymos, a larger asteroid. Both are not a threat to Earth. Because of its proximity to Earth, NASA is just practicing target practice with Didymos because it’s easy to see the effects of the impact.

A satellite made in Italy called LICIACube will be able to position itself near Dart to send data and pictures back to Earth before the crash.

Will it work?

LICIACube’s photos and telescope observations from Earth will give an indication of whether Dimorphos has been moved. It is possible to only move it by a fraction of one percent. Ground-based radar and telescope observations will be used to measure the changes in Didymos’ orbit.

Why don’t they just blow it all up?

It is disappointing, but perhaps also reassuring that NASA will not soon be lowering Bruce Willis to the surface of asteroid (spoilers ahead for those who are joining us from 1997) drill an opening, drop in a nuke bomb, and then try to escape fast enough.

It would be wise to recognize an asteroid that could threaten Earth and to stop it from traveling. The earlier it can be altered, the farther away it will be, hopefully.

“A key to avoiding an asteroid disaster is to be aware of it in advance and have the ability to change its course”, Lindley Johnson, a NASA planetary defense officer, told a media briefing. He stated that if an asteroid was heading toward Earth, then we don’t want it to be there and testing this type of capability.

There are lots of other ideas including running a spaceship alongside and using a laser, ion engine jet, or other kinds of beam device to exert a slight but significant-over-time effect. A robotic lander could mine the surface and then expel it (mass-driver effects), using Newton’s third law. To reflect enough sunlight onto the object, solar sails could be placed nearby.

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