CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida– The NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test aims to make history at 7:14 p.m. ET Monday when it crashes into Dimorphos, a tiny asteroid moon orbiting the larger asteroid Didymos. The impact, if successful, will slightly alter the asteroid’s motion.
It’s a test of deflection technology that could one day be used to protect Earth if a space rock is found to be in an impact orbit with our planet. There are currently no asteroids (including Didymos and Dimorphos) expected to strike our world.
Here’s what to expect on the day of the event.
A live broadcast begins at 6 p.m. on NASA’s website. ET Monday and lasts until 7:30 p.m. ET. Then the space agency will hold a post-event briefing to discuss what happened.
The DART spacecraft carries an imager called DRACO, short for Didymo’s Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, that will share a live stream of images as it approaches the binary asteroid system. These images are shared at a rate of one per second, providing viewers with a video-like experience.
What starts out as 1 pixel eventually grows into an incredibly detailed look at Dimorphos before DART slams into it.
Humans have never seen Dimorphos before because the asteroid system only appears as a single point of light in ground-based telescopes.
In the last hour of the approach, Dimorphos and Didymos come into view. The pinpricks of light sharpen, revealing the two separate celestial bodies. Scientists will finally be able to determine the shape of Dimorphos and whether its surface is rough or smooth.
“Our last image will probably be about two and a half seconds before impact, so the DRACO field of view will actually be completely filled with this beautiful image of Dimorphos,” said Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
In the broadcast, expect the team to have lost radio contact with DART. Images will continue to come through and display for about eight seconds as they travel through space to Earth, said Edward Reynolds, DART project manager at the Applied Physics Lab.
Also on the journey is the Italian Space Agency’s Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids, or LICIACube. This briefcase-sized CubeSat hitchhiked into space on DART and detached from the spacecraft on September 11th.
There are two cameras on the CubeSat called LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid). Together they will collect images and help accompany LICIACube on its journey.
The small satellite flies behind DART at a safe distance to record what is happening.
Three minutes after impact, LICIACube will fly past Dimorphos to capture images and video of the impact plume as it spurts up from the asteroid, and perhaps even scout the crater they could leave behind. The minisatellite will also take a look at Dimorphos’ opposite hemisphere, which DART cannot see until it is obliterated.
The CubeSat will turn to keep its cameras trained on Dimorphos as it flies by. Days, weeks and months later we will see images and videos taken by the Italian satellite
t who observed the collision event.
The first images expected back from LICIACube could show the moment of impact and the resulting cloud.
After the fact
While the engineering team looks forward to celebrating a successful impact, astronomers will know it’s time to get to work, said Tom Statler, NASA DART program scientist. Ground-based observatories around the world will monitor the asteroid system to confirm whether DART has successfully altered the asteroid’s motion.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and Lucy Mission will also observe the aftermath. The images they collect could show an overall brightening of the entire asteroid system, indicating how much dust and debris was kicked up by the impact, Statler said.
Astronomers will use telescopes on Earth to compare previous observations of the system with those they collect after the event.
It currently takes Dimorphos 11 hours and 55 minutes to circumnavigate Didymos once. After DART’s impact, that could shrink by 10 minutes – something that can be measured by telescopes on Earth – ultimately revealing whether DART was successful.
And don’t expect to see the last asteroid system in 2022.
To study the aftermath of the impact, the European Space Agency’s Hera mission will launch in 2024, and we can expect even more dramatic images of the aftermath then.
The spacecraft, along with two CubeSats, will reach the asteroid system in 2026, about four years after DART completes its mission. There, Hera will study both asteroids, measure the physical properties of Dimorphos, and study the DART impact crater and moon’s orbit to proceed with the overarching goal of establishing an effective planetary defense strategy.
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