NASA wants to protect humanity from a similar catastrophe that killed the dinosaurs millions of years ago. The space agency has been working on a powerful machine that would prevent a possible asteroid strike on Earth.
The project aims to use kinetic impact to deflect a large space rock that could hit the planet. NASA plans to start testing the machine as part of its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) on July 22, 2021, Universe Today reported.
The agency will send DART to a tiny binary asteroid system called Didymos, which has a pair of space rocks, called Didymos A, nearly 780 meters in diameter, and Didymos B, about 160 meters. The asteroid deflecting machine would crash into Didymos B.
DART features an ion engine, called NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (NEXT-C). It will help move the machine in space using ion drives, which NASA describes as three times more powerful than the agency’s DAWN and Deep Space One spacecraft.
NEXT-C can produce 6.9 kW thrust power and 236 mN thrust. In its previous tests, NASA recorded the highest total impulse of any ion engine when the engine reached 17 MN·s.
NASA will send DART to the Didymos asteroid system along with some satellites. The agency has been working with the Italian Space Agency for the imaging cubesats, called LICIA.
The small satellites will separate from DART prior to impact on Didymos B. They are designed to capture images of the impact and the debris made by the collision.
NASA said the impact should leave a 20-meter wide crater on the asteroid’s surface and change its orbital velocity by nearly a half millimeter per second. Those changes are expected to alter Didymos B’s rotation period, allowing Earth-based telescopes to detect the space rock.
DART is expected to reach its target on Sept. 22. The machine will be destroyed on the first test mission but the project will continue with the European Space Agency (ESA) leading the next stage.
ESA plans to launch a follow-up mission, called Hera, in 2024. The mission aims to analyze the effect of DART’s impact and send instruments to study the binary asteroids and their interior.