NASA crashes spacecraft into asteroids to divert its path later this month

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NASA is preparing to launch its first planetary defense test, in which a spacecraft purposely crashes into an asteroid to hit its trajectory. The US agency has filled the spacecraft with fuel, performed some final tests, and is conducting samples for the final mission. The mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is scheduled to start on November 23rd. It will attempt to hit the moonlight asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. It should be noted that none of the asteroids pose a threat to Earth. NASA will monitor the mission from Earth-based telescopes and collect data that will improve modeling and prediction skills and help us better prepare for an actual asteroid threat.

Dimorphous, the target asteroid, means “two shapes” in Greek and is approximately 525 feet (160 m) in diameter. The crash won’t destroy the asteroid, just give it a nudge to divert its path, scientists said. But it is not yet clear how much deflection the crash will cause. It largely depends on the composition of the asteroid or how porous it is.

Scientists and engineers worked on DART during the pandemic. They equipped the spaceship with the various technologies that the mission will test. One of them would be the NEXT-C ion propulsion system, which aims to improve performance and fuel efficiency for space missions. “It’s a miracle what this team has achieved with all the obstacles like COVID and the development of so many new technologies,” said Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland in a blog post.

Starting November 10th, NASA engineers will begin “pairing” the spacecraft with the adapter that sits on top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket will roll from the hangar onto the launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, one day before launch. The first opportunity to start the DART mission is on November 23rd. If the start is delayed for any reason, including bad weather, the team will consider the second opportunity the next day.

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