NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission spacecraft has successfully launched as scientists seek to test our planetary defenses against a theoretical asteroid threat.
The DART spacecraft launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:21 a.m. EST on Wednesday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The spacecraft will soon turn itself towards the sun and begin setting itself up for a long journey ahead. Its destination is Didymos, a pair of asteroids that are orbiting the sun.
When will DART hit the asteroid?
When the DART spacecraft arrives at its target asteroid in September or October, 2022, it will have traveled 6.8 million miles from Earth.
Its mission is to hurtle into one of the Didymos asteroids at a speed of around 15,000 miles per hour. This speed, combined with the spacecraft’s 1,210 lb weight, should be enough to slightly alter the asteroid’s orbit in space.
This won’t make any difference to life on Earth as the asteroid isn’t heading towards us. But it will tell scientists whether it is possible to knock an asteroid off course if needed.
Specifically, DART’s target is one of the Didymos asteroids called Dimorphos. It’s the smallest of the asteroid pair, measuring around 525 ft across. It orbits the larger asteroid, which is called Didymos.
The DART spacecraft will travel using a solar-powered electric thruster. Known as the NEXT-C ion propulsion system, it is fueled by xenon and works by accelerating ions into jets that are directed out of the back of the spacecraft.
The amount of xenon fuel the spacecraft is carrying weighs 60 kilograms, but it’s only expected to use 10 kilograms of this during its mission.
The DART spacecraft forms a box shape that is 3.9 by 4.3 by 4.3 feet in size, though it also has other parts attached to it. The solar panels, for instance, are 27.9 feet long.
While Earth is not currently expected to experience a large asteroid impact in the foreseeable future based on available data, scientists are wary of the threat these space rocks pose nonetheless.
Thousands of them are currently being tracked through space right now. According to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), there are nearly 28,000 near-Earth asteroids that we know about. Around 1,000 of these are thought to be at least 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in size.
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