by Douglas Messier
The countdown is on for NASA’s first attempt to deflect an asteroid — a test that could prove vital in the future should one pose a major threat to the Earth.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Mission (DART) mission is 48 days away from its collision with asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26. Edward Reynolds, DART program manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, gave a preview of the mission and the role a Cubesat will play in it during the Small Satellite 2022 conference in Logan, Utah.
Dimorphos is a small moon 160 meters (525 ft) in diameter that orbits the larger Didymos asteroid every 11 hours 55 minutes. Didymos is 780 meters (0.48 miles) in diameter. Reynolds said the goal is to effect a 10 minute change in Dimorphos’ orbit.
DART is a complicated mission because scientists do not know all that much about the dual asteroid system. A fuzzy radar image does exist of Didymos that was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
They know even less about the Dimorphos moon that DART is targeting. Reynolds said it could be any shape.
Navigation needs to be extremely precise. The final four hours of the mission prior to the collision will be completely automated by on-board systems. Controllers on the ground will not be able to affect the outcome.
The Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) will separate from DART prior to the collision in order to photograph the collision and aftermath.
The European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the Hera mission that will allow scientists to better assess the impact of DART’s collision with Dimorphos as well as studying both asteroids.
Deflecting dangerous asteroids on a collision course with Earth has become a much bigger priority for NASA and ESA. It is estimated that a 50-meter diameter meteor the size of the one that created the Barringer Crater in Arizona could completely destroy the DC metro area and spread debris across a wide area.
Scientists have studied a number of different techniques that include deflection and nuclear weapons. Reynolds said a lot of time is required in order to deal with a serious threat to Earth.