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NASA “DARTs” to intercept an asteroid – The Stute – The Stute

September 23, 2022
The independent student newspaper of Stevens Institute of Technology

Around 65 million years ago, an asteroid or comet hit the Earth in modern-day Mexico, rendering a majority of the species at the time extinct. With the growth of technology, many scientists have been working to try and prevent a similar future occurrence. Just under a year ago, on November 23, 2021, NASA launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket which carried the agency’s new Double Asteroid Redirection Mission spacecraft. The launch marked the beginning of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), “the world’s first full-scale mission to test technology for defending Earth against potential asteroid or comet hazards.”
The spacecraft was launched with the intent to intercept Dimorphos, an asteroid 11 million kilometers from Earth, on September 26 of this year. NASA hopes that the impact will push Dimorphos into a closer orbit around its partner asteroid, Didymos. If everything goes to plan, Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos will be shortened by a few minutes; this means the asteroid would, theoretically, enter Earth’s orbit before or after our planet would be in a direct path for collision, as explained by John Foster, a researcher and Michigan engineer who helped develop DART’s ion engine. On the ground, researchers can then measure this change of orbit and try to conclude if the method used could effectively deflect future asteroids and/or comets.
This is not to say the mission comes without a huge challenge, though. The strength of Dimorphos is not yet fully understood, according to DART lead investigator Andy Cheng of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. If the asteroid is weak, the spacecraft running into it at 6 kilometers per second will cause a large crater that takes hours to develop “in a process so complex it would take months or even years to model with traditional computer simulations” said Sabina Raducan, a planetary scientist at the University of Bern. This means that the true results of NASA’s efforts may not be known for a long time. However, there will be another effort for scientists to look forward to in the meantime; the European Space Agency will launch its mission Hera in October of 2024. Hera will involve a spacecraft traveling to Dimorphos’s surface to closely examine the asteroid’s surface and mass; this will give researchers of the DART mission a better understanding of the result of the upcoming impact.
On September 26, at 7:14 EDT, the collision between the spacecraft and Dimorphos will take place. The event will be live-streamed on NASA TV, its website, and the agency’s social media accounts for viewers to watch at home, with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. EDT. While Dimorphos does not currently pose a threat to us, there are many potentially hazardous asteroids scientists do not yet know about. As a result, researchers are necessarily developing their work in space exploration and relevant technology in anticipation of the unknown. After all, we do not want a repeat of what happened to our planet millions of years ago.
Published in Science
Sara Deuidicibus is a freshman studying Biomedical Engineering and has been with The Stute since Spring 2021. She is a staff writer, copy editor, and writes science and news articles. Sara is a nationally-registered EMT, loves to write poetry, and is especially interested in the engineering involved with medical devices.
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