NASA is well along on a new mission that may ultimately save the earth from an event like the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. To Far Side readers, no, it wasn’t because of smoking. Looks like the dinosaurs went through the trauma that Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck try to avoid in the movie, Armageddon, when Earth was threatened by an asteroid on a direct path to our planet.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is a planetary defense-driven test of technologies for preventing an impact of Earth by a hazardous asteroid.  DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, DART, NASA
The DART mission is tasked with hitting the moon of this asteroid. Project manager choose an asteroid with a moon so they can measure the ability to move one asteroid by measuring its relation to the other asteroid. (Image source: NASA)

The germ of the idea for DART came from the need to protect the Earth from a potential cataclysmic event of an asteroid hitting the planet. “The DART project just started with scientists thinking about planetary defense and how you deflect a threat,” Elena Adams is a space systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory told Design News. “It’s hard to measure the hit on an asteroid that is traveling by itself, so we decided to find an asteroid with a moon. You can measure the moon before the test and after the test. You can see if you hit the moon hard enough to move it from an hour to 52 minutes.”

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, DART, NASA
DART spacecraft. The DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance & Asteroid Camera for OpNav) imaging instrument is based on the LORRI high-resolution imager from New Horizons. The left view also shows the Radial Line Slot Array (RLSA) antenna with the ROSAs (Roll-Out Solar Arrays) rolled up. The view on the right shows a clearer view of the NEXT-C ion engine (Image source: NASA)

As well as testing the ability to move a large object in space, the DART mission is also testing a new spacecraft. “We’re demonstrating a NEXT-C engine powered by ions,” said Adams. “DART is the first mission to demonstrate smart navigation, which means we’re going to be guiding ourselves into the asteroid autonomously.”

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, DART, NASA
DART spacecraft with the Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) extended. Each of the two ROSA arrays in 8.6 meters by 2.3 meters. (Image source: NASA)

Once launched, DART will deploy the Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) to provide the solar power needed for the craft’s electric propulsion system. The DART spacecraft will demonstrate the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (NEXT-C) solar electric propulsion system as part of its in-space propulsion.  NEXT-C is a next-generation system based on the Dawn spacecraft propulsion system that was developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. 

As for changing an asteroid’s trajectory the test will help determine the amount of impact necessary to make the difference in the asteroid’s path. “You want to hit the asteroid and see if you can move it. For a larger object, you would use other techniques such as gravity. Then there is the nuclear option,” said Adams. “There will be follow-up missions. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office coordinates different efforts, not just for the US, but for organizations in Europe and other countries. It’s an ongoing effort.”

The DART mission is directed by NASA to the Applied Physics Laboratory with support from several NASA centers:  the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, Glenn Research Center, and Langley Research Center. 

Elena Adams will present the keynote address, Earth Strikes Back with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, at the Drive World Conference in Santa Clara August 27-29.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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