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Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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NASA Practices Saving Earth From Asteroid

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NASA’s DART spacecraft (right) will slam into the asteroid Dimorphos (left), with the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube (bottom right) bearing witness to the collision. The impact will alter Dimorphos's orbit around the bigger asteroid Didymos (top right). | Image by NASA

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NASA plans on intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to practice in case the technique could potentially save Earth from a devastating asteroid strike.

Similar to what you may have seen in movies like Armaggedon and Deep Impact, NASA will use a spacecraft to implement the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART). The idea is that if a spacecraft collides with an asteroid, it could throw it off its trajectory.

“While [this particular] asteroid poses no threat to Earth, this is the world’s first test of the kinetic impact technique, using a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid for planetary defense,” NASA stated.

DART will depend on the success of the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO), which took 243 pictures from outer space of the light coming from the asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moonlet Dimorphos on July 23.

The images were faint and were about 20 million miles away. A NASA team enhanced the images to get a clearer picture of Didymos and pinpoint a DART target location.

Elena Adams, DART’s mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, stated:

“The quality of the images is similar to what we could obtain from ground-based telescopes, but it is important to show that DRACO is working properly and can see its target to make any adjustments needed before we begin using the images to guide the spacecraft into the asteroid autonomously.”

Scientists from NASA have carried out several navigation simulations with non-DRACO images of Didymos, but DART’s success will rely on its ability to process the images and identify its location, especially four hours before impact, which only DRACO can do.

Julie Bellerose, the DART navigation lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, stated, “We can iron out the best settings for DRACO and fine-tune the software … In September, we’ll refine where DART is aiming by getting a more precise determination of Didymos’ location.”

DART will perform three correction maneuvers over the next three weeks to reduce the margin of error of the spacecraft colliding with Dimorphos. From that point on, the DART spacecraft will be left to collide with the asteroid’s moonlet, Dimorphos.    

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