NASA has delayed the launch of its first planetary defense mission aimed at preventing potentially dangerous asteroids from colliding with Earth.
The mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will send a spacecraft to test the crash on the near-Earth binary asteroid system called Didymos, in 2022. NASA announced on February 17 that the launch window main this year from July 21 to August 1. 24 is no longer an option. Instead, the space agency is targeting a backup window that opens on November 24 and runs through February 15, 2022, according to a NASA statement.
The decision to postpone the launch was made by the senior leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) following a risk assessment of the DART project schedule. Delaying the launch of the mission will not affect the spacecraft’s arrival at its target, which is scheduled for October 2022, NASA officials said.
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The recent risk assessment revealed technical problems with two main components of the spacecraft, including its main instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance Camera and Asteroids for Optical Navigation (DRACO) and its deployable solar arrays (ROSA). The DRACO imager needs to be beefed up to ensure it can withstand launch, while solar panels are delayed due to supply chain problems caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At NASA, mission success and safety are of the utmost importance, and after careful risk assessment, it was clear that DART could not be feasibly and safely launched within the main launch window,” said Thomas. Zurbuchen, associate administrator for SMD, in the statement. “To ensure DART is prepared for mission success, NASA directed the team to seek the first possible launch opportunity during the secondary launch window to allow more time for DRACO testing and ROSA delivery, and to provide a safe work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. “
The DART spacecraft will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA is working with SpaceX and the agency’s Launch Services Program to identify the first possible launch opportunity within this secondary window.
DART will target a binary asteroid system consisting of a larger asteroid called Didymos, which is about 2,540 feet (775 meters) wide, and a smaller asteroid satellite called Dimorphos, which is 540 feet (165 m) wide. The mission will test a new planetary defense technique, which will require the spacecraft to crash into Dimorphos to change the asteroid’s orbital velocity through a kinetic impact. If successful, this technique could be used to deflect asteroids that pose a threat to Earth.
“While COVID-19 was not the only factor in this delay, it has been an important and critical factor for multiple problems,” NASA officials said in the statement. “Testing equipment prior to launch is a crucial step in all missions to ensure mission success, and project teams build time into processing schedules to accommodate potential delays.”
NASA’s DART mission will also carry a small satellite called the Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroid, or LICIACube, which was built by the Italian Space Agency to observe the impact on Dimorphos and return images of the event to Earth. The European Space Agency is also planning a follow-up mission to Dimorphos, known as Hera, which will evaluate the results of the DART mission and study the impact site on the asteroid. The Hera mission is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024 and will reach the asteroid two years later.
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