The leaves of a tree are seen with a partial lunar eclipse as a backdrop in Lutherville-Timonium, Md. The celestial event, which happened when the moon was obscured by Earth’s shadow, is set to last for just over six hours, the longest lasting partial lunar eclipse in 580 years. (AP photo)
NASA Launches DART, to Learn how to Defend the Earth From a Future Asteroid Impact – Universe Today
In the early hours of the morning on Wednesday, Nov. 24th, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) launched from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base (SFB) in California. This spacecraft is the world’s first full-scale mission to demonstrate technologies that could someday be used to defend our planet from Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that could potentially collide with Earth.
Put simply, the DART mission is a kinetic impactor that will evaluate a proposed method for deflecting asteroids. Over the next ten months, the DART mission will autonomously navigate towards the target asteroid – the binary NEA (65803) Didymos – and intentionally collide with it. If everything goes according to plan, this will alter the asteroid’s motion so that ground-based telescopes can accurately measure any changes.
The launch took place at 01:31 AM EST (Tues. Nov. 23rd, 10:31 PM PST) when the DART mission took off from SLC-4E atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. At 02:17 AM (11:17 PM PST), DART separated from the booster’s second stage and began sending telemetry data back to missions controllers minutes later. About two hours later, the spacecraft unfurled the two 8.5-meter (28-foot) large solar arrays that will power its Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP) thruster.
The collaborative DART effort was built and is led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). The mission is managed under NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and Planetary Science Division, with support provided by multiple NASA centers. The mission is compromised of multiple elements provided by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and other partner agencies. As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson explained in a recent NASA press release:
“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all. 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 its core, DART is a mission of preparedness, and it is also a mission of unity,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “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.”
The mission consists of two spacecraft, the 610 kg (1,340 lb) impactor that relies on the NEXT ion thruster, a type of solar electric propulsion that uses solar arrays to power its NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster–Commercial (NEXT-C) engine. The target for this mission, named for the Greek word “twin,” consists of a larger primary asteroid (65803) named Didymos, and an orbiting moonlet named Dimorphos.
Whereas (65803) Didymos measures about 780 meters (2,560 ft) in diameter, Dimorphos is less than one-quarter the size (160 m; 530 ft). This moonlet will be the primary target for DART, which will rendezvous with the system between Sept. 26th and Oct. 1st, 2022. At this time, the binary asteroid’s orbit will bring it within 11 million km (6.8 million mi) from Earth, where DART will be waiting to collide with Dimorphos at a speed of about 6 km/s (4 mi/s).
Scientists estimate that this will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes, which they will precisely measure using ground-based telescopes. The results will be used to validate and improve the computer models that are currently used to predict the outcomes of asteroid deflection. This change in speed will be far easier to measure than a change in Didymos’ orbital velocity (hence why Dimorphos was selected).
The DART spacecraft will be accompanied by a second spacecraft called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), provided by the Italian Space Agency (ASI). This small CubeSat will piggyback with DART, separate ten days before impact, then capture images of the impact’s effect and the ejecta created. Roughly four years after DART impacts the moonlet, the ESA’s Hera project will arrive at Didymos to conduct detailed surveys of both asteroids.
This test will provide vital data that will be used to develop improved preparations and strategies for asteroid defense. While Didymos does not currently pose a threat to Earth, it is classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid.” This designation applies to asteroids measuring 100 m (~330ft) or more in diameter and whose orbit brings them within 0.05 AU (7.5 million km) of Earth.
In the past, impacts by these similarly-sized objects are believed to have caused extinction level events (ELEs), such as the Chicxulub Impact Event that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. As Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters, said:
“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. 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 space-based 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.”
Next week, DART will activate the only instrument it carries – the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) – and take the spacecraft’s first images. In addition to its sophisticated navigation system, DART will rely on a series of Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation (SMART Nav) algorithms. These will enable DART to identify and distinguish between the two asteroids, then direct itself towards Dimorphos.
Joan Marie is a science communicator, STEM advocate, and an Aerospace Integration Engineer with the NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). She and her colleagues worked through the night in order to prepare the DART mission for launch at Vandenburg SFB. “It felt amazing,” she said. “Being able to see (visually) the hard work our team put into this launch was an incredible feeling.”
Also present was Andy Cheng, one of the DART investigation leads at JHUAPL and the individual who came up with the idea of DART. As he described it, seeing the mission he conceived take flight was a dream come true:
“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. 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!”
Further Reading: NASA
'Use this technology to monitor the progression': How space tech can help the world fight the pandemic – USA TODAY
SpaceX and NASA Crew-3 mission finally launch into space after delays
After several delays, the SpaceX and NASA Crew-3 mission finally launched into space with four astronauts.
USA TODAY, Storyful
Michael Strahan, former football star and host of “Good Morning America,” will be taking off with a crew of five other passengers on Dec. 9, amidst a global pandemic and rising cases of the new omicron variant.
Strahan won’t be the first civilian in space. In September, the Inspiration4 launch sent four civilians (a physician’s assistant, an aerospace worker, a professor and a billionaire) into orbit. In October, William Shatner became the oldest person to go into space, at the age of 90.
Civilian spaceflight launches have had a shining spotlight in a time when COVID devastated regions all over the globe. Some, like Prince William, have even criticized the obsession on spaceflight, saying billionaires and companies should focus more on addressing issues closer to Earth.
But could technology developed for space help us battle the pandemic?
An article released in September in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine investigated how space-based technologies could be used to help manage and prevent pandemics.
How much a seat into space costs: William Shatner went to space. Here’s how much it would cost you.
Telemedicine was ‘developed by space agencies’
When astronauts are in space, for example, their medical information is meticulously tracked, the paper says.
In fact, astronauts often run medical experiments in space to help researchers better understand how the human body reacts to the properties of space, according to Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA.
For the SpaceX Inspiration4 launch, McAlister said, civilians conducted a series of experiments, such as drawing blood in space, and shared the data with researchers on Earth.
“Telemedicine was actually developed by space agencies as well in order to provide care, monitor the care of astronauts,” says Dr. Farhan Asrar, a medical doctor and global faculty member at the International Space University. Asrar was a contributor to the Nature Medicine article.
Similarly, Asrar points out, telemedicine can be used to monitor and assess COVID patients remotely without the risk of infecting healthcare workers.
Asrar says that wearable technology has already been used by Canadian astronauts to monitor several key parameters of health, such as blood pressure, temperature, breathing rate and heart rate, all of which were streamed hundreds of miles from Earth aboard the International Space Station.
These wearable devices can be used by healthcare workers to detect early on whether they are developing and spreading symptoms, the paper suggests.
Using satellite imagery to monitor progression
Satellite imagery could contribute to pandemic planning and the distribution of vaccines against COVID-19, according to the paper.
Satellites launched into space have already helped plot disease transmission during the Ebola outbreak, the paper points out. In the fight against polio, satellite images found marginalized and previously unknown villages in Nigeria, assisting with eradication efforts.
“There are several parameters which you can monitor using satellites,” Asrar says. “We can monitor temperatures that are ideal for these infectious conditions so that if an outbreak is occurring, you can use this technology to monitor the progression.”
Asrar cites using satellite monitoring on mosquito populations as a potential way to predict outbreaks of malaria.
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Isolation and developing techniques to preserve mental health
One more thing we can learn from astronauts is the science of managing isolation, the paper says.
Astronauts often have to be in space for days or months on end, with little or no contact with their loved ones. In a similar sense, social distancing guidelines have prevented people from gathering and made those with limited technological resources even more isolated, the paper points out.
In another article published in Nature in May of 2020, astronauts shared ways that they dealt with isolation in space, including having a carefully managed daily routine and structuring work around an inspiring mission.
Both research papers suggest that by understanding how astronauts cope with isolation, we can develop better techniques for preserving our mental health during the pandemic.
Feel like you’re surviving, not thriving: Join us at Keeping it Together, a newsletter about wellness and living life amid COVID-19.
Follow Michelle Shen on Twitter @michelle_shen10
NASA’s DART Kinetic Impactor Spacecraft Launches in World’s First Planetary Defense Test Mission – SciTechDaily
Lighting up the California coastline early in the morning of November 24, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="
“>NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft off the planet to begin its one-way trip to crash into an asteroid.
DART — a mission designed, developed, and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office — is the world’s first full-scale mission to test technology for defending the planet against potential asteroid or comet hazards. The spacecraft launched Wednesday morning at 1:21 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
As just one part of NASA’s larger planetary defense strategy, DART will send a spacecraft to impact a known asteroid that is not a threat to Earth, to slightly change its motion in a way that can be accurately measured via ground-based telescopic observations. DART will show that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it. It’s a method called kinetic impact, and the test will provide important data to help humankind better prepare for an asteroid that might post an impact hazard to Earth, should one ever be discovered.
“The Double Asteroid Redirection Test represents the best of APL’s approach to space science and engineering: identify the challenge, devise an innovative and cost-effective technical solution to address it, and work relentlessly to solve it,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “We are honored that NASA has entrusted APL with this critical mission, where the fate of the world really could rest on our success.”
At 2:17 a.m. EST, DART separated from the second stage of its launch vehicle. Minutes later, mission operators at APL received the first spacecraft telemetry data and started the process of orienting the spacecraft to a safe position for deploying its solar arrays. Almost two hours later, the spacecraft successfully unfurled its two 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.
“The DART team overcame the technical, logistical and personal challenges of a global pandemic to deliver this spacecraft to the launch pad, and I’m confident that its next step — actually deflecting an asteroid — will be just as successful,” said Mike Ryschkewitsch, head of APL’s Space Exploration Sector. “It gives me a lot of assurance that if we ever have to embark on an urgent planetary defense mission, we have the people and the playbook to make it happen.”
DART’s one-way trip is to the Didymos asteroid system, which comprises a pair of asteroids — one small, the other large — that orbit a common center of gravity. DART’s target is the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, which is approximately 530 feet (160 meters) in diameter and orbits Didymos, which is approximately 2,560 feet (780 meters) in diameter. Since Dimorphos orbits the larger asteroid Didymos at a much slower relative speed than the pair orbits the Sun, the slight orbit change resulting from 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.
The spacecraft will intercept the Didymos system in late September of 2022, intentionally slamming into Dimorphos at roughly 4 miles per second (6 kilometers per second) so that the spacecraft alters the asteroid’s path around Didymos. Scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by several minutes, and they will precisely measure that change using telescopes on Earth. The results will be used to both validate and improve scientific computer models that are critical to predicting the effectiveness of 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 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 camera DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation), will turn on a week from now and 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 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth.
A sophisticated guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system, working with algorithms developed at APL called SMART Nav (Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation) will enable the DART spacecraft to identify and distinguish between the two asteroids and then, working in concert with the other GNC elements, direct the spacecraft toward Dimorphos, all within roughly an hour of impact.
Provided by the Italian Space Agency, the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) will ride along with DART and be released prior to impact. LICIACube will then capture images of the DART impact, the resulting ejecta cloud and possibly a glimpse of the impact crater on the surface of Dimorphos. It will also look at the back side of Dimorphos, which DRACO will never have a chance to see, gathering further data to enhance the kinetic models.
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