In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is due to launch a first-of-its-kind planetary defense mission for NASA, sending the spacecraft on its route to crash into an asteroid. During a news briefing, NASA’s Launch Services Program senior launch director Omar Baez said, “We’re smashing into an asteroid.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing that,” says the narrator.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) mission aims to understand “how to deflect a hazard that would approach” toward Earth, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the science mission directorate at NASA. “Rest assured, that rock is not a threat right now,” he stated. DART will be launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on a Falcon 9 rocket, with a liftoff window starting at 1:20 a.m. ET on Wednesday.
DART is a 610-kilogram spacecraft that will spend ten months traveling to the asteroids Didymos and Dimorphos. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland built DART, and Redwire provided the spacecraft’s navigation and solar arrays. The goal of the mission is to collide with Dimorphos, the smaller of the two asteroids, at a speed of roughly 15,000 miles per hour to see how the impact modifies the asteroid’s trajectory.
The DART mission is expected to cost NASA over $330 million in total, with SpaceX winning a $69 million launch contract in 2019. DART is not just NASA’s first planetary defense mission, but also SpaceX’s first mission to launch a spacecraft to another planet. “This is the coolest task I’ve ever seen. “Thank you everyone for allowing SpaceX to be a part of such an essential planetary protection mission,” Julianna Scheiman, SpaceX’s director of civil satellite missions, said at a news briefing. Last Friday, SpaceX successfully test-fired its Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for the launch.
The Dimorphos asteroid is nearly the same size as Giza’s Great Pyramid, while the Didymos asteroid is larger than New York City’s One World Trade Center tower. After arriving to the asteroids and before colliding with Dimorphos, the DART spacecraft will launch a small cube satellite to photograph the collision event.
Despite the fact that the mission is testing a type of planetary defense, NASA’s Zurbuchen emphasised that Earth is not in immediate danger. Although there are billions of asteroids and comets orbiting the sun, only a small number of them have a realistic chance of colliding with the Earth in the near future. “Of all the known near-Earth objects, none pose a threat in the next 100 years or so,” Zurbuchen noted.