NASA to Host World's First Planetary Defense Test

Scientists will launch a spacecraft to impact an asteroid and redirect its flight path


In late September, NASA will host a public viewing of the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the world’s first mission to test technology that can defend earth against potential asteroid or comet hazards.

The U.S. space agency calls the demonstration a “focused mission” aimed at proving “a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and collide with it.”

Though scientists are able to execute mini-impacts and build computer models based on those results, NASA said real-world tests are necessary in order to reach the next step in the evolution of this technology.

“Very few of the billions of asteroids and comets orbiting our Sun are potentially hazardous to Earth, and, for at least the next century, no known asteroid threatens our planet,” the agency said in a statement. “The DART mission is a key test that NASA and other U.S. and international space agencies will perform before any actual need is present, better preparing our defenses should we ever discover an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.”

DART team members carefully lower the DART spacecraft onto a low dolly in SpaceX’s payload processing facility on Vandenberg Space Force Base. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland built the DART spacecraft and is managing program.

NASA’s space vehicle — which is roughly the size of a small car — will fly at a speed of four-miles-per-second, and will impact an asteroid moonlet named “Dimorphos” at 7:14 p.m. EDT on Monday, Sept. 26.

Dimorphos (Greek for “two forms”) is roughly 530 feet across. The impact will be observed by telescopes on earth, as well as a small ride-along satellite, built by the Italian Space Agency, that will separate from DART prior to impact.

Officials say the key mission objectives are to:

  • Demonstrate a kinetic impact with Dimorphos.
  • Change the binary orbital period of Dimorphos.
  • Use ground-based telescope observations to measure Dimorphos’ period change before and after impact.
  • Measure the effects of the impact and resulting ejecta on Dimorphos.

APL combined decades of missile-guidance expertise with state-of-the-art imaging and navigation technology to produce a craft capable of intercepting a moving target in space.

On this mission, NASA will also be demonstrating its new Xenon Thruster—Commercial (NEXT—C) ion engine, an electric propulsion system used to power DART.

Planetary defense is a congressionally directed program to find and track no fewer than 90 percent of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that are 140 meters or larger in size.

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