SpaceX launches NASA DART spacecraft into an asteroid

NASA’s Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft was placed in the nose cone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, ready for launch.

Ed Whitma/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA

Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch the first planetary defense mission for NASA in the early hours of Wednesday morning, sending the spacecraft on its way to deliberately crashing into an asteroid.

“We are hitting an asteroid,” said Omar Baez, senior launch director of NASA’s launch services program, at a press conference. “I can’t believe we are doing this”

Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that the space agency, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) mission, is trying to learn “how to turn possible threats toward Earth”.

“Don’t worry, that stone is not a threat now,” he said.

SpaceX is launching DART on the Falcon 9 rocket at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The launch window starts at 1:20 AM EST on Wednesday.

DART is a spacecraft weighing 610 kilograms. It will take 10 months to travel to a pair of asteroids named Didymos and Dimorphos.The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland built DART, and the aerospace company Red line Contributed to the navigation of the spacecraft and the solar panels that power it.

The goal of the mission is to use a spacecraft to hit the smaller of the two asteroids, Dimorphos, at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour, to see how the impact changes the asteroid’s trajectory.

Overview of the DART mission plan.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

The DART mission cost NASA about $330 million in total, and SpaceX won a launch contract worth $69 million in 2019. This is not only NASA’s first planetary defense mission, but DART also represents SpaceX’s first mission to launch a spacecraft to another planetary body.

“This is just the coolest mission. Thank you everyone for making SpaceX part of a truly important planetary defense mission,” SpaceX Civil Satellite Mission Director Juliana Sherman said at a press conference.

SpaceX tested the Falcon 9 rocket last Friday in preparation for launch.

On November 23, 2021, during the sunrise at the Vandenberg Space Force base in California, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can be seen carrying the Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft.

Bill Ingles/ NASA

In terms of scale, the size of the Dimorphos asteroid is about the same as the Great Pyramid of Giza, while the diameter of the Didymos asteroid is wider than the height of the World Trade Center building in New York. After reaching the asteroid, before it hits Dimorphos, the DART spacecraft will deploy a small cube satellite to take pictures of the impact event.

Although the mission is testing a planetary defense method, Zurbuchen emphasized that NASA is not aware of any risks facing the Earth in the near future. There are billions of asteroids and comets orbiting the sun, but only a few have the chance to strike the earth for a long time.

“Of all the near-Earth objects we know today, none of them pose a threat in 100 years,” Zurbuchen said.

The infographic shows the size of the two asteroids in the Didymos system relative to some objects on Earth.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL


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