Normally, NASA likes its probes to make contact with other objects in space in a very controlled way. You want to land a rover on mars, no release a rover on Mars, for example. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is different. This time, NASA is going to step on the ion pedal and just ram the damn thing with its spaceship, because fuck you, asteroid. In addition, they will learn a lot about how to deflect potentially dangerous asteroids so that they do not become meteorites that impact the Earth. But mostly because they don’t like the way that asteroid looks at them.
You know the DART project is exciting because it’s in the Planetary defense section of NASA’s website, which sounds like part of a movie involving lasers and at least one astronaut falling into space.
The DART spacecraft is a square ion powered craft. kinetic impactor with interesting drop down solar panels, and it looks like this:
The ion engine is especially interesting, because it is the first application of a propulsion system that will likely be used in future spacecraft:
“The DART spacecraft will demonstrate the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (NEXT-C)solar electric propulsion system as part of its propulsion in space. NEXT-C is a next-generation system based on the Dawn spacecraft propulsion system and was developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. By utilizing electric propulsion, DART could benefit from significant flexibility in the mission timeline while demonstrating the next generation of ion engine technology, with applications for possible future NASA missions. “
The target asteroid is an interesting choice, because it is really two asteroids. The asteroid is called Didymos and it is a binary asteroid because it has its own little “moon”, a smaller asteroid that orbits Didymos. This little moon is DART’s target.
Using the solar-powered ion engine and advanced autonomous targeting software, DART will launch against the moon, changing the speed of the moon’s orbit around Didymos, a change that can be studied by telescopes on Earth.
Studying the change in the orbital path can help us figure out how to more effectively hit a potential asteroid that impacts Earth enough to lose our planet, where we not only keep our things, but it is also the location of each asteroid. Shake shack known to mankind.
Also, like any good modern fight, there will be a witness who will record it all on video, in this case a small Cubesat that will launch before impact and may or may not load the footage into World star.
On Vice, there is a good interview with astronomer Andy Rivkin, who offers a great explanation of the DART mission and what he hopes to achieve:
So yeah, take that, asteroid. That little punk moon has until November 24 to February 15, 2022 to fix her things, since that’s the current startup window for DART.