Thursday, March 30

Mission, save Earth: the DART probe successfully hits the Dimorphic asteroid

Image captured by the DRACO camera seconds before the impact of DART against Dimorphs. / POT

Science | Space

At 1:14 a.m. Spanish time, the DRACO camera has shown the closest image of these celestial rocks to date

It was 14 minutes past one in the morning in our country when the DART spacecraft collided with the Dimorphic asteroid. This asteroid did not pose a risk to Earth, but rather the target chosen to carry out a planetary defense test mission, with which it is wanted to demonstrate the human capacity to modify the trajectory of an asteroid or a comet that is heading towards our planet in should any be discovered in the future. Objective achieved.

At 23:30 at night, Spanish time, the DRACO camera that DART had incorporated began to retransmit the first images from space of this operation. At first, only a very distant bright point could be seen, Didymo, the largest asteroid around which Dimorpho orbits.

First images relayed by the DRACO camera of the DART probe. /


However, 45 minutes later, at around 00:15 Spanish time, exactly one hour before impact, SmartNav, DART’s autonomous navigation system, has located its target and, in the mission control center of the Applied Physics at John Hopkins University, Elena Adams, systems engineer for the DART mission, has announced: “We’re seeing Dimorph!”

In the live broadcast, on the other hand, it was difficult to distinguish the two asteroids and the image was not very spectacular. It has been in the final phase, prior to the impact, when Dimorfo has appeared on the screen with greater definition. Shortly after, the probe has turned off the engine and has continued its collision course at more than 23,000 kilometers per hour. Three minutes later, the loss of the signal from the DRACO camera confirmed the news: DART had been completely destroyed when it hit the asteroid.

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Loss of signal from the DART probe when hitting Dimorph. /


History had just been made and an explosion of joy was generated at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory that filled the room with applause, hugs, kisses and congratulations. After more than a year waiting for that moment, it had finally arrived and it had been a success. “I felt absolutely euphoric, especially when I saw that the camera got closer and we realized how much science we are going to learn. But the best part has been the end, when there was no doubt that the impact was going to be made and see the team delighted with its success. NASA works for the benefit of humanity and this has been the demonstration of a technology that could one day save our planet, “said Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator.

“We’ve been planning this moment, talking about it for years, and I knew it was going to be spectacular, but It has exceeded all my expectations. I no longer have to talk about it as something that is going to happen, it has already happened, and I am very proud to have been part of this team, as I know all my colleagues are too.

DART mission: all set to modify the orbit of an asteroid

The DART probe – which means dart in English and responds to the acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test – had been flying for a year, since it was launched on November 24, 2021 on the SpaceX Falcon rocket, from Space Complex 4 East , from the Vandenberg Space Force Base, in California, but at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory this project began in 2015.

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What will happen now?

During its time in space, DART performed course modification maneuvers and took pictures of some bright stars or planets like Jupiter and its four satellites, as a rehearsal for when it came time to locate the small asteroid Dimorph. “This has been a very complex technology demonstration, colliding with a small asteroid is something that has never been done before, and while we were getting the images we were already asking ourselves questions about what we were seeing. The LiciaCube microsatellite is currently in charge of obtaining more images, which will arrive shortly. DART is just the beginning. It’s just the first planetary defense test mission. In the following weeks we will know how cash has been and what to do next, “added Chabot.

LiciaCube has followed the same route as DART, but a few hundred kilometers behind, and is equipped with two cameras. However, being smaller and having less power, it will take a little longer to send images back to Earth. For its part, a global team of scientists is using dozens of telescopes stationed around the world and in space to observe the asteroid system and analyze the ground-based telescopes to accurately measure the orbital change produced in Dimorpho, after the crash. The researchers expect the impact to shorten the asteroid’s orbit by about 1%, or about 10 minutes. In this way, the effectiveness of the project will be evaluated and the way of applying it to future planetary defense scenarios will be assessed.

Later, at the end of 2024, the Hera spacecraft of the International Space Station (ESA) will head back to the Dídymos system to carry out an in-depth study of the aftermath of the impact, through the detailed characterization of the physical properties of Dídymos and Dimorpho and the crater made by the DART mission. “DART’s success provides a significant addition to the essential toolbox we must have to protect Earth from the devastating impact of an asteroid,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer. “This shows that we are no longer powerless to prevent these kinds of natural disasters.”

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