Check Out NASA’s DART Mission

It’s like “Armageddon” but in real life.

November 04, 2021

Let’s say that tomorrow astronomers discover that an asteroid is headed on a collision course with Earth. What would we possibly do to save ourselves?

The answer is…nothing. Nothing at all. We have no technology available that could build, launch, and deploy quickly enough to deflect an oncoming asteroid.

That is, until now.

Introducing DART, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission, brought to us by the good folks at NASA, who are very interested in planetary protection. DART will launch on November 24th, with one single mission: kill.

Image converted using ifftoany

Image converted using ifftoany

Photo by: gribbsp1

gribbsp1

Well, maybe not quite kill, but more like redirect.

DART is a relatively simple spacecraft. It contains no scientific payloads. It only has a few instruments (a camera for imaging, a sun sensor, and a star tracker) to aid in navigation. It will use solar panels to power an ion drive to help it accelerate to its destination. Its target is the asteroid 65803 Didymos. Didymos is about half a mile across, and spends most of its life just outside the orbit of the Earth.

But sometimes Didymos – together with its small moon Dimorphos – intersect the orbit of the Earth, putting it on the official NASA list of “I’m watching you” potential hazards. If Didymos struck the Earth, it wouldn’t quite be an extinction-level event (that takes a rock a few miles across to accomplish), but it certainly wouldn’t be a good day. Or century.

Here’s how the mission will work. DART will accelerate towards Didymos, eventually reaching it in October of 2022. And then it will slam head-on into the asteroid. The end.

Photo by: gribbsp1

gribbsp1

Didymos is the size of a small mountain. DART is…not. How is this supposed to work?

DART is expected to only change the velocity of Didymos by a tiny, tiny amount, like a fly slamming into the side of a truck. But in space, this actually works. Right now, Didymos is classified as potentially hazardous, because it might someday strike the Earth. But if we change the velocity of Didymos just a tiny bit, then over the course of years and even centuries it will end up in a completely different orbit…hopefully one that doesn’t include Earth in its crosshairs.

Behind the Scenes: The Making of DART

Don’t worry, NASA did the math, and there’s no way that DART will make Didymos angry and send it barreling straight for us.

This mission is just a test, to see if this strategy can significantly alter the trajectory of an asteroid. If we see a hazardous asteroid soon enough, we could launch a spacecraft like DART at it to nudge it off course. If this test doesn’t work, it means we have to come up with new techniques to prevent catastrophe.

Bruce Willis was unavailable for comment.

Dive Deeper into the Cosmos

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

NASA Has a New Supersonic Jet and It’s Super-Quiet

There’s more to NASA than space. The agency’s full acronym stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I’ve covered plenty of interesting stories in the space sector, so it’s time to the aeronautics side some love too.

NASA's New Rocket is Taller than the Statue of Liberty

The massive space launch system was unveiled last week. Following successful completion of upcoming simulation tests, NASA will set a date for the first of the Artemis II lunar missions.

Watch NASA's Asteroid-Crashing DART Mission Make Impact

NASA sent a spacecraft on a mission to crash into an asteroid, so how did it go?Updated 9/26/22

The James Webb Space Telescope Launches!

Finally! It was initially proposed way back in 1998 and named the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002. After a decade of delays and over 10 billion dollars past its original budget, NASA’s next great observatory finally launched from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in South America.

Here Comes Artemis I (Rescheduled, again)

NASA's long-awaited Artemis 1 uncrewed moon mission and next generation of spacecraft has been delayed for a second time. The rocket was initially scheduled to launch on Aug. 29, 2022, at 8:33 AM ET, but was delayed due to an issue with the engine bleed. Watch Space Launch Live: Artemis-1 on Science Channel to see the moment of liftoff. (Launch Date Pending) (Updated Sept 7, 11:00AM)

Axiom Lifts Off with the First Fully Private Crewed Mission to Space

Axiom Mission 1 blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center today, setting the standard for commercial space travel with a first-of-its-kind mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

6 Months in Space Permanently Ages Bones by 10 Years

Astronauts on long-term space missions can experience bone loss equivalent to two decades of aging. New research suggests more weight-bearing exercises in space could help offset that decline.

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

South Korea Joins Space Race by Sending its First Spacecraft to the Moon

South Korea is launching its first lunar probe to the moon on August 4th. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) or Danuri, developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is being launched to study moon carters, magnetic fields, and surface weathering.

How Astronomers Use a Trick of Gravity to See the Most Distant Objects in the Universe

Let’s say you’re an astronomer (work with me here) and you want to take a picture of something incredibly, deeply far away. You know, the typical business of astronomy.

Related To: