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NASA’s DART spacecraft crashes into an asteroid, on purpose

“This is the first time we have tried to move something in our solar system with the intention of preventing a [potential] natural disaster that has been a part of our planet’s history from the beginning,” says Statler.

The DART probe, the name is short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, has been in the works since 2015. It was designed, built, and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, with support from many centers in the NASA, and launched last November. . DART is an important part of AIDA, Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. The mission also relies on observatories in Arizona, New Mexico, Chile and elsewhere; Astronomers keep their telescopes focused on Dimorphos and Didymos to measure the post-impact deflection as accurately as possible.

Until the end of DART’s flight, astronomers could only see Dimorphos and Didymos as a single point of light. The smallest asteroid is so small that it can’t be seen from ground-based telescopes, but astronomers can track it by measuring how often it dims its big brother’s already dim light as it orbits it.

The spacecraft’s final approach was captured by its optical camera, called DRACO, which is similar to the camera on board New Horizons, which flew by Pluto. Even this much closer camera was only able to see Dimorphos as a separate object a few hours before impact.

“Because you’re almost in, only in the last few minutes will we be able to see what Dimorphos looks like: What is the shape of this asteroid that we’ve never seen before?” Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University and coordinating lead for DART, said in an interview a few days before the impact. “Actually, it’s only in the last 30 seconds that we will resolve features on the asteroid’s surface.”

In fact, until today, scientists weren’t really sure whether the asteroid would be more like a billiard ball or a ball of dust. “Is this moon a single giant rock, or is it a collection of pebbles or particles? We don’t know,” said Carolyn Ernst, a JHU investigator and DRACO instrument scientist, speaking before impact. Its composition could affect a number of variables that scientists want to study: how much the crash will alter the asteroid’s trajectory, whether it will leave an impact crater, rotate the asteroid or eject rock fragments.

Unlike most space probes, DART did not slow down before reaching its target. As it approached, its camera continually took pictures of the asteroid as it grew in frame, sending them back to Earth via the Deep Space Network, to an international array of antennas run by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. POT.

Those images are not only important for research; They are key to navigation. It takes 38 seconds for human operators to send signals to DART, or for the probe to send images back to Earth. When the moment was critical, it was necessary for the probe to pilot itself. In the last 20 minutes, its automated SMART Nav system performed a “precision lock” on the target and used these images to adjust the spacecraft’s course with thrusters.

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