NASA, SpaceX Launch DART:
First Test Mission to Defend Planet Earth

DART launch

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft sets off to collide with an asteroid in the world’s first full-scale planetary defense test mission. Riding atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, DART took off Wednesday, November 24, 2021, from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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, launched at 1:21 a.m. U.S. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on November 24, 2021, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Just one part of NASA’s larger planetary defense strategy, DART — built and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland — will impact Dimorphos, a known asteroid that is not a threat to Earth. Its goal is to slightly change the asteroid’s motion in a way that can be accurately measured using groundbased telescopes.

DART will show that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it — a method of deflection called kinetic impact. The test will provide important data to help better prepare for an asteroid that might pose an impact hazard to Earth, should one ever be discovered. The Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), a CubeSat riding with DART and provided by the Italian Space Agency (ASI), will be released prior to DART’s impact to capture images of the impact and the resulting cloud of ejected matter. Roughly four years after DART’s impact, European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Hera project will conduct detailed surveys of both asteroid Didymos and its small moonlet Dimorphos, with particular focus on the crater left by DART’s collision and a precise determination of Dimorphos’ mass.

“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth.”

At 2:17 a.m., DART separated from the second stage of the rocket. Minutes later, mission operators received the first spacecraft telemetry data and started the process of orienting the spacecraft to a safe position for deploying its solar arrays. About two hours later, the spacecraft completed the successful unfurling of its two 8.5-meter-long (28-foot-long) roll-out solar arrays. They will power both the spacecraft and NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster–Commercial (NEXT-C) ion engine, one of several technologies being tested on DART for future application on space missions.

“At its core, DART is a mission of preparedness, and it is also a mission of unity,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This international collaboration involves DART, ASI’s LICIACube, and ESA’s Hera investigations and science teams, which will follow up on this groundbreaking space mission.”

DART’s one-way trip is to the Didymos asteroid system, which comprises a pair of asteroids. DART’s target is the moonlet Dimorphos, which is approximately 160 meters (530 feet) in diameter. The moonlet orbits Didymos, which is approximately 780 meters (2560 feet) in diameter.

Since Dimorphos orbits Didymos at much a slower relative speed than the pair orbits the Sun, the result of DART’s kinetic impact within the binary system can be measured much more easily than a change in the orbit of a single asteroid around the Sun.

“We have not yet found any significant asteroid impact threat to Earth, but we continue to search for that sizable population we know is still to be found. Our goal is to find any possible impact, years to decades in advance, so it can be deflected with a capability like DART that is possible with the technology we currently have,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters. “DART is one aspect of NASA’s work to prepare Earth should we ever be faced with an asteroid hazard. In tandem with this test, we are preparing the Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, a spacebased infrared telescope scheduled for launch later this decade and designed to expedite our ability to discover and characterize the potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.”

The spacecraft will intercept the Didymos system between September 26 and October 1, 2022, intentionally slamming into Dimorphos at roughly 6 kilometers per second (4 miles per second). Scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes. Researchers will precisely measure that change using telescopes on Earth. Their results will validate and improve scientific computer models critical to predicting the effectiveness of the kinetic impact as a reliable method for asteroid deflection.

“It is an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve been involved with since the ‘words on paper’ stage become real and launched into space,” said Andy Cheng, one of the DART investigation leads at Johns Hopkins APL and the individual who came up with the idea of DART. “This is just the end of the first act, and the DART investigation and engineering teams have much work to do over the next year preparing for the main event — DART’s kinetic impact on Dimorphos. But tonight we celebrate!”

DART’s single instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO), will provide the first images from the spacecraft. DART will continue to travel just outside of Earth’s orbit around the Sun for the next 10 months until Didymos and Dimorphos will be a relatively close 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) from Earth.

A sophisticated guidance, navigation, and control system, working together with algorithms called Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation (SMART Nav), will enable the DART spacecraft to identify and distinguish between the two asteroids. The system will then direct the spacecraft toward Dimorphos. This process will occur within roughly an hour of impact.

For more information, visit https://dart.jhuapl.edu/.