Millions upon millions of years ago–times before humans even walked the planet–dinosaurs roamed planet Earth, establishing themselves as one of the most known reptile species to ever take long-term residence on our planet. This all came to an end when an asteroid, with a diameter of 10.2 kilometers rained down on the Earth, eliminating these creatures. Today, NASA has already started looking ahead at many scenarios that could devastate or possibly extinct humans, and has started to test ways to deflect the trajectory of asteroids to protect Earth. Because having an asteroid capable of eradicating humans is unlikely for millions of years, and other factors such as technology and climate change are more plausible, the objective of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) initiative was mainly taken as a defense system for smaller asteroids that could still create calamity for our world, yet incapable of threatening the fate of human civilization. Although every life form on Earth comes to an end, this planetary defense system developed by NASA will help secure a safer future from minor asteroids.
NASA plans to have the spacecraft fly directly into Didymos’ moon Dimorphos, which will hopefully impact the moon enough to change the orbital period of the two astronomical objects and pull them closer together. The expected time of impact is tomorrow at around 7:14 pm Eastern Time.
The entire concept of DART might seem somewhat childish: find a spacecraft and crash it into an asteroid. However, this technique carries some merit. A large enough spacecraft or satellite slamming into an asteroid has enough power to move the asteroid in the smallest way, which could affect the entire trajectory of an asteroid over time. The key to this technique is finding asteroids ahead of time so the changed trajectories miss Earth.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test is the first of any type of asteroid planetary defense system and launched on the 21st November of 2021 to try and intercept the asteroid Didymos (half a mile in diameter and 7 million miles from Earth), which will help NASA test and analyze DART.
The spacecraft itself is relatively small: it’s around 40 feet in length when both of its solar arrays fly open and can be launched from a Falcon 9 rocket. DART uses an ion propulsion system called NEXT-C which uses the electrostatic acceleration of ions to produce thrust which is received from the xenon propellant. A single camera called DRACO is equipped with the spacecraft which will help it with navigation because it lies too far from Earth to be controlled. This highly specialized piece of technology will also help measure the size and shape of the impact and get a glimpse (high-quality images) of the surface before it crashes. Before impact, DART will also release a CubeSat named LICIACubeSat developed by the Italian Space Agency that will observe the damage after the impact.
Because of this experiment, NASA can help develop further technology to prepare Earth against other deadly asteroids that threaten human civilization. Even though these impacts may never make much of a difference because of the abundance of problems on the planet itself, they will help protect humans from experiencing the same fate as the dinosaurs did millions of years ago.