Planetary Defense Mission: Darting Towards Dimorphos

DART, NASA’s planetary defense mission, targets asteroid Dimorphos to nudge it off course.

Asteroids are no strangers to Earth. Our planet encounters thousands of asteroids every year but the atmosphere burns them into dust before they become meteorites. But, approximately every 2000 years, a larger piece of meteor manages to survive our protective atmosphere and hits our planet’s surface causing considerable damage, like it did in the Tunguska explosion in 1908.

So, it is not absurd to think of a future, where, one day, we may get bombarded with a massive meteorite resulting in catastrophic destruction and human casualty.

What does this potential threat mean in the space community? Well, to safeguard our planet from erratic space rocks, we have a number of defence measures at hand, from nuclear attacks to simply nudging the asteroid away from its course. But none of these techniques have been tested, yet.

Illustration of DART’s trajectory towards Dimorphos (DART)

Not until November 24, 2021. That day, NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) — humankind’s first-ever planetary defense mission. Taking off from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, this spacecraft will be a trial run for an event where an asteroid may be cannonball-ing towards our planet.

For now, DART will deliberately collide into Dimorphos (160 m wide), a harmless moonlet of a larger asteroid, Didymos (780 m wide), between late September and early October of 2022. Dimporphos’ size runs close to the size of asteroids that could potentially threaten our planet. DART’s impact is expected to tweak the asteroid’s orbital speed by several minutes.

Simply a testing ground, this experiment on Dimorphos will allow us to understand if this technique of crashing a spacecraft onto an asteroid will effectively change its path and prevent it from striking Earth.

Through this mission, we will be prepared with the necessary measures needed to alter the trajectory of a sizable asteroid from catapulting towards us in the future. This is our first attempt at protecting our planet, but if all does not end well and the mission fails, we are still safe from Dimorphos.

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