NASA's mission to crash into an asteroid just launched. Here's what happens next The DART probe rocketed to space on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday.

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The Dart probe went into space on Tuesday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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Dart is away!

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The nine engines of the SpaceX Falcon 9 began life Wednesday morning as a NASA probe launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The probe, known as DART (for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), is programmed to head toward a small rock millions of miles from Earth—and then collide with it.

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Within just 9 minutes of launch, the booster that launched the Dart into space returned to Earth by landing on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. NASA will now await the “acquisition of a signal” that will let scientists back home that Dart is healthy and ready for its long cruise on the reef.

The dazzling night launch marks the possible dawn of a new era in planetary defense. NASA wants to demonstrate that Dart can nudge an asteroid, in which case the Moon, known as a “dimorphos.” This particular rock orbits a large asteroid known as Didymos. Neither poses any threat to the earth. However, if our telescopes saw a killer asteroid headed straight for us, we might have to resort to such a deliberate collision (in scientific parlance, this is known as the “kinetic effect”).

This makes DART a test run for a potential planet-saving maneuver. Over the next year, the probe will power its ion thrusters and gradually gain momentum as it makes its way toward the asteroid pair. The violent rendezvous is due in September 2022 at speeds of about 15,000 mph. “It’s like going from New York City to Los Angeles in the blink of an eye,” said Denton Gibson of NASA Launch Services during the livestream.

NASA predicts that the crash will be strong enough to adjust Dimorphos’ orbital period to a few minutes. Calculations show that the effect Dimorphos will bring near Didymos and Earth-based telescopes will be able to pick up incremental changes. This means we won’t have confirmation of DART’s success until sometime in the back half of 2020.

The results will inform future planet guards about the best way to avoid or shield the dangerous rock – something that dinosaurs may have used 66 million years ago. In space, even small nudges can cause big changes in trajectory, so while we can detect rocks (and that’s a whole other thing) we’ll be able to push them down the cosmic highway to Earth. should be able.

Specification of spacecraft

Dart is rather simple. It’s a relatively inexpensive metal box with two roll-out, expandable solar arrays for power, a camera and a small satellite, or CubeSat, that will be deployed just before impact. The limited number of instruments is understandable, as the spacecraft is doomed to die in a suicide mission.

Two different views of the Dart spacecraft.

Here are some specifications about the Dart spacecraft:

Cost: $308 million.

Weight: 1,345 pounds (610 kg) at launch / 1,210 (550 kg) pounds at impact.

Box Dimensions: 3.9 by 4.3 by 4.3 feet (1.2 by 1.3 by 1.3 metres).

Solar Array Dimensions: 27.9 feet each (8.5 meters).

additional equipment: DRACO camera and a CubeSat.

Device: Ion propulsion technology/xenon propellant.

CubeSat of Dart spacecraft

Engineers from the DART team lift and inspect the CubeSat. The tiny satellite will deploy 10 days before DART’s asteroid impact, providing essential footage of the collision and subsequent material. Here, an array of solar panels is visible on the satellite’s wings.

While Dart’s spacecraft payload is ultra-minimal, the team’s programming behind the curriculum is highly advanced. This is because the brave little craft is supposed to behave autonomously throughout the mission.

What science is Dart doing?

The spacecraft’s instruments may be lacking, but they are important. The Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, or DRACO, device is an ultra-high-resolution camera that can measure the size, shape and geologic composition of asteroids around them.

The DART also houses a metal-oxide semiconductor and image processor that will help the spacecraft determine the exact position of dimorphos and stream the information back to Earth in real time via an antenna attached to the machine.

In addition, the Dart will be equipped with a navigation toolkit with state-of-the-art directional coding, including the Star Tracker, my personal favorite NASA instrument, to make sure it hits the dimorphos at exactly the right time — ding, Ding: 7 million mile (11 million kilometer) checkpoint. Ten days before DART enters its target, it will send its CubeSat out. That branch will preserve the chronicle of kinetic impact long after DART has turned into debris.

DART will do its duty till the end. “NASA hopes to capture juicy details of the collision before, during, and after the impact,” said the Johns Hopkins University observation, so “in its final moments,” Dart’s Draco camera will provide high-resolution, scientific images. This will help to characterize the impact site. Dimorphose’s surface.”

Then: Boom.

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