Washington, Oct 22 (IANS): NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, intended to deliberately crash into an asteroid, is preparing to launch next month -- world's first mission to test planetary defense techniques, demonstrating one mitigation method of asteroid deflection, called kinetic impact.
The spacecraft will go through a series of final tests and checks, as well as fueling, in the next few weeks as the team prepares for DART's scheduled launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on November 24, NASA said in a statement on Thursday.
The spacecraft will impact the small asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, which orbits a larger companion, Didymos, in a binary asteroid system to change its orbital period.
Although neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, the collision with Dimorphos enables researchers to demonstrate the deflection technique along with several new technologies, and collect important data to enhance our modeling and predictive capabilities for asteroid deflection. Those enhancements will help us better prepare should an asteroid ever be discovered as a threat to Earth, NASA said.
The binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos is the target for the DART demonstration. While the Didymos primary body is approximately 780 metres across, its secondary body (or "moonlet") is about 160-metres in size, which is more typical of the size of asteroids that could pose the most likely significant threat to Earth.
The US space agency is intensely observing 'Didymos' binary using telescopes on Earth to precisely measure its properties before DART arrives.
Once launched, DART will deploy Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSA) to provide the solar power needed for DART'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.
In mid-September, the DART team also successfully went through a flight operational readiness review to assess its readiness to start spacecraft operations once DART enters space.
"We spent the last one and a half years testing DART on the ground, practicing for what's the most highly anticipated part yet: its flight to Dimorphos," said Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland.
"We have a few more mission rehearsals to do, with the team practicing spacecraft launch operations from Vandenberg in California and the APL Mission Operations Center in Maryland. Once completed, we will be ready for launch and operations," Adams added.