NASA is preparing to launch DART to deflect asteroids with kinetic impact

Illustration of Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).

Illustration of the DART spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Team members of NASA‘s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) has refueled the spacecraft, performed many of the final tests and is in the process of rehearsing as they approach DART’s scheduled launch on November 23, 2021.

DART will be the world’s first planetary defense test mission, heading for the small moonlight asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger companion asteroid called Didymos, and deliberately crashes into the asteroid to slightly change its orbit. Although none of the asteroids pose a threat to Earth, DART’s kinetic impact will prove that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and kinetically affect it. Then, by using ground-based telescopes to measure the effects of the impact on the asteroid system, the mission will improve modeling and prediction capabilities to help us better prepare for an actual asteroid threat should one ever be detected.

“DART will be the first demonstration of the ‘kinetic impactor’ technique, in which a spacecraft deliberately collides with a known asteroid at high speed to alter the asteroid’s motion in space,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer. This technique is believed to be the most technologically mature approach to mitigating a potentially dangerous asteroid, and it will help planetary defense experts refine asteroid kinetic impactor computer models, providing insight into how we can deflect potentially dangerous terrestrial objects in the future. ”

DART packed and ready to move to SpaceX

DART packed and ready to move to SpaceX. Members of the DART team stand outside the Astrotech Space Operations treatment facility with the shipping container that houses the DART spacecraft. DART moved to SpaceX’s payload handling facility at the end of last month. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Over the past year and a half, while following pandemic health and safety protocols, engineers built the DART from a collection of parts to a fully assembled spacecraft. Engineers equipped the spacecraft with the various technologies the mission will test, including NASA’s NEXT-C ion propulsion system designed to improve performance and fuel efficiency for deep space missions, and a flat, slotted high-gain antenna for efficient communication between Earth and the spacecraft.

During the summer and early September, engineers installed the spacecraft’s built-in camera DRACO (its only instrument), its two unrolled solar panels, each unfolding to 28 feet, and the Italian Space Agency’s miniature satellite LICIACube, designed to take pictures. of the kinetic influence of DART and its immediate after-effects.

DART SpaceX payload handling facility

After moving to SpaceX’s payload handling facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, DART team members carefully removed the spacecraft from its shipping container and moved it to a low dolly. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

“It’s a miracle what this team has accomplished with all the obstacles along the way like COVID and the development of so many new technologies,” said Elena Adams, DART mission system engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “But the reason we’ve succeeded so far is that our team is excited, extremely sharp, and they really want to show that if an asteroid came towards Earth, we could prevent a disaster.”

The spacecraft arrived at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) near Lompoc, California, in early October after a cross-country ride. DART team members have since prepared the spacecraft for flight, tested the spacecraft’s mechanisms and electrical system, wrapped the final parts in multi-layer insulation blankets and practiced the launch sequence from both the launch site and the mission operations center at APL.

DART went to SpaceX Payload handling facility at VSFB on 26 October. Two days later, the team received the green light to fill DART’s fuel tank with about 110 pounds (50 kg) of hydrazine propellant for spacecraft maneuvers and attitude control. The DART also carries about 130 pounds (60 kg) of xenon for the NEXT-C ion engine. Engineers charged xenon before the spacecraft left the APL in early October.

The DART spacecraft Vandenberg Space Force Base

DART team members gently lower the DART spacecraft onto a low dolly in SpaceX’s payload processing facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

From November 10, engineers will “pair” the spacecraft to the adapter stacked on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. One day before launch, the rocket will roll out of the hangar and onto the launch pad at the Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E), where it will propel the spacecraft into space and set in motion DART’s journey to the Didymos system.

“I am both amazed and grateful that DART has gone from a twinkle in the eye to a spacecraft in the final preparation for launch within 11 years,” said Andy Cheng, head of the DART investigation team at APL and the one who came along. the idea of ​​DART. “What made it possible was an amazing team that overcame all the challenges of building a spacecraft to do something never done before.”

DART’s first launch opportunity is scheduled for November 23 at. 22:20 PST. If the weather or other issues prevent a launch the first night, the team will have an additional opportunity to launch the next day. If necessary, subsequent launch attempts can take place until February 2022.

The Johns Hopkins APL has been instructed to manage the DART mission of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office as a project of the Agency’s Planetary Missions Program Office. The agency provides support for the mission from several centers, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The launch is managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program, which is based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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