NASA is making final preparations to crash spacecraft into asteroid

NASA is making final preparations to crash spacecraft into asteroid

NASA is making final preparations to crash spacecraft into asteroid

The American space agency NASA is making the final preparations to crash a spacecraft into one asteroid in the world’s first planetary defense test.

The mission is called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. The DART spacecraft was launched on its trip to the asteroid last November. On September 26, it will aim to hit the asteroid to see how the crash affects the spacecraft’s path.

The test is designed to demonstrate a possible method to change the direction of asteroids that are considered threats to Earth.

The mission’s target will be an asteroid called Dimorphos, which is part of a two-body asteroid system. Dimorphos is a small “moonlight” orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos. Didymos is about 780 meters above, while Dimorphos is 160 meters.

This image shows light from the asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moon Dimorphos.  It is a combination of 243 images taken by the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) on July 27, 2022. (Image credit: NASA JPL DART Navigation Team)

This image shows light from the asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moon Dimorphos. It is a combination of 243 images taken by the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) on July 27, 2022. (Image credit: NASA JPL DART Navigation Team)

The asteroid system poses no danger to Earth. But NASA says it is being targeted as a more efficient way to test the crash method rather than hitting a single asteroid flying through space.

The goal of the DART mission is to see how the spacecraft crash will redirect the asteroid’s trajectory and speed. The accident will occur around 11 million kilometers from Earth.

Currently, Dimorphos completes an orbit around Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The distance between the centers of the two asteroids is 1.18 kilometers. The DART spacecraft will aim to hit Dimorphos almost head-on. When this happens, it will shorten the time it takes the small asteroid moon to orbit Didymos by several minutes, NASA explains.

Telescopes on Earth will measure the change in orbital period.

NASA engineers have said they hope for a change of at least 73 seconds for the mission to be considered a success.

Members of the DART team closely inspect the spacecraft before performing vibration tests in July 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Members of the DART team closely inspect the spacecraft before performing vibration tests in July 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the DART spacecraft had gotten its first look at the asteroid system. A series of images were taken on July 27 by an imaging instrument on the spacecraft. The images showed light provided by the Didymos system.

NASA said that when the images were taken, the spacecraft was about 20 million miles (32 million km) away from the two asteroids. This made it difficult to see much of the Didymos system. But after the images were combined and examined, the team was able to improve the image quality and identify it placement.

Elena Adams is a DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. She said: “This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our image processing techniques.” Adams added that the imaging instrument is what will guide the DART spacecraft to its asteroid target.

DART team members install and inspect the spacecraft's DART's only instrument — the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) — on the spacecraft in June 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team members install and inspect the spacecraft’s DART’s only instrument — the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) — on the spacecraft in June 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

In the final hours before the crash, the spacecraft will have to view and process images of the asteroid system as it travels by itself to its target without human involvement, NASA said.

The DART operation will be captured with images taken by a CubeSat. CubeSats are small research spacecraft also known as nanosatellites.

DART team members from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and the Italian Space Agency carefully place the LICIAcube into position on the DART spacecraft.  (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team members from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and the Italian Space Agency carefully place the LICIAcube into position on the DART spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

The 14-kilogram CubeSat that will take the images is called LICIACUbe. It is a project of the Italian Space Agency. It was designed and built by the Italian space technology company Argotec. LICIAcube is set to be deployed from the spacecraft about 10 days before the crash.

LICIAcube is equipped with two separate cameras. They are designed to collect scientific data and inform the CubeSat’s self-guidance system. The cameras will continuously capture the asteroid crash as well as the resulting effects of the operation.

DART team engineers lift and inspect the LICIACube CubeSat after it arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland in August.  The miniaturized satellite will be deployed 10 days before DART's asteroid strike.  (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

DART team engineers lift and inspect the LICIACube CubeSat after it arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland in August. The miniaturized satellite will be deployed 10 days before DART’s asteroid strike. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Elisabetta Dotto is a member of the LICIACube scientific team at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome. She said in a statement that she and other researchers are “eager” to receive and examine the images taken by the CubeSat. “It will be so exciting to study, for the first time, the nature and structure of such strange objects which binary [near-Earth asteroids].”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from NASA and The Associated Press.

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Words in this story

asteroid n. a rocky object that orbits the sun like a planet

mission n. a flight by an aircraft or spacecraft to perform a specific task

placement n. the place where something happens

technique n. a method

eager adj. really want to do something

strange adj. very unusual or strange

binary adj. related to two things

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