NASA’s DART Spacecraft is on an Asteroid Collision Course

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is attempting the world’s first planetary defense test.

The multi-million-dollar DART spacecraft is currently travelling through space on an intentional collision course with Dimorphos, the asteroid moonlet of Didymos.

DART was launched on 23rd November 2021 aboard a SpaceX Flacon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California - you can even track its journey and mission clock. The spacecraft is now preparing to collide with its asteroid target at the end of this month.

The craft will crash into the 160m wide asteroid at 7:14pm ET (00:14am GMT) on Monday 26th September 2022. You can watch the impact live on NASA’s YouTube channel. If successful, this method could deflect future Earth-bound asteroid and save countless lives.

"These objects are hurtling through space and have of course scarred the moon and, over time, also on Earth have had major impacts, have affected our history," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, commented during a news conference.

DART is a small spacecraft, with its core consisting of a box just under a metre wide on all sides. The craft has solar arrays that roll out to 12 meters in width. Once both arrays are deployed, DART will be around the size of a school bus. The spacecraft’s electric propulsion system uses a flow of charged ions to create a gentle but constant push.

On 11th September, the crew confirmed the spacecraft’s “mini photographer” LICIACube (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids) was successfully ejected ahead of the crash. LICIACube will stop at a safe distance of 600 miles from Dimorphos to observe the collision with its two optimal cameras. Once DART hits the asteroid, the CubeSat will continue its journey to inspect the scene from a closer distance. The Italian micro-satellite will transmit the real-time footage to scientists back on Earth.

This will be NASA’s first time using the kinetic impactor technique as a planetary defense method. DART will crash into the moonlet at 15,000 mph, transferring kinetic energy into the asteroid and pushing it closer to Didymos. If successful, Dimorphus will orbit Didymos at least 73 seconds quicker than before. DART will only be changing the period of orbit by a small amount, but this deflection would be enough to veer a future Earth-bound asteroid off its course.

"This will give us all confidence that deflection technology could work in the future," Andrea Riley, a program executive at NASA working with the agency's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, commented at a news conference. "If it misses, it still provides a lot of data. This is a test mission. This is why we test; we want to do it now rather than when there is an actual need."

While DART’s target poses no threat to us, this innovative mission could save millions of lives if an Earth-threatening asteroid were discovered in the future.

"This isn't just a one-off event," said Nancy Chabot, the DART coordination lead at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. "We want to know what happened to Dimorphos, but more important, we want to understand what that means for potentially applying this technique in the future."

As DART’s collision date draws closer, ground-based telescopes will monitor the system and provide further updates. This is an exciting time for the space sector – along with the rest of the plane – as NASA embark on this first journey of its kind.

Could this little spacecraft be the catalyst for missions that one day save us from a dinosaur-like fate?