Teachable Moments | October 20, 2022
The Science Behind NASA's First Attempt at Redirecting an Asteroid
Find out more about the historic first test, which could be used to defend our planet if a hazardous asteroid were discovered. Plus, explore lessons to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.
Update: Oct. 20, 2022 – The DART spacecraft successfully impacted the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, reducing the period of the asteroid's orbit by 32 minutes. Scientists considered a change of 73 seconds to be the minimum amount for success. This article has been updated to reflect the latest data and images from the impact.
In a successful attempt to alter the orbit of an asteroid for the first time in history, NASA crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26, 2022. The mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, took place at an asteroid that posed no threat to our planet. Rather, it was an ideal target for NASA to test an important element of its planetary defense plan.
Read further to learn about DART, how it worked, and how the science and engineering behind the mission can be used to teach a variety of STEM topics.
Why It's Important
The vast majority of asteroids and comets are not dangerous, and never will be. Asteroids and comets are considered potentially hazardous objects, or PHOs, if they are 100-165 feet (30-50 meters) in diameter or larger and their orbit around the Sun comes within five million miles (eight million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. NASA's planetary defense strategy involves detecting and tracking these objects using telescopes on the ground and in space. In fact, NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, monitors all known near-Earth objects to assess any impact risk they may pose. Any relatively close approach is reported on the Asteroid Watch dashboard.
While there are no known objects currently posing a threat to Earth, scientists continue scanning the skies for unknown asteroids. NASA is actively researching and planning for ways to prevent or reduce the effects of a potential impact, should one be discovered. The DART mission was the first test of such a plan – in this case, whether it was possible to divert an asteroid from its predicted course by slamming into it with a spacecraft.
With the knowledge gained from the demonstration, similar techniques could be used in the future to deflect an asteroid or comet away from Earth if it were deemed hazardous to the planet.
How It Worked
With a diameter of about 525 feet (160 meters) – the length of 1.5 football fields – Dimorphos is the smaller of two asteroids in a double-asteroid system. Before DART's impact, Dimorphos orbited the larger asteroid called Didymos (Greek for "twin"), every 11 hours and 55 minutes.
Neither asteroid poses a threat to our planet, which is one reason why this asteroid system was the ideal place to test asteroid redirection techniques. At the time of DART's impact, the asteroid pair was 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from Earth as they traveled on their orbit around the Sun.
The DART spacecraft was designed to collide head-on with Dimorphos to alter its orbit, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid to travel around Didymos. Compared with Dimorphos, which has a mass of about 11 billion pounds (five billion kilograms), the DART spacecraft was light. It weighed just 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms) at the time of impact. So how did such a light spacecraft affect the orbit of a relatively massive asteroid?
DART was designed as a kinetic impactor, meaning it transferred its momentum and kinetic energy to Dimorphos upon impact, altering the asteroid's orbit in return. Scientists were able to make predictions about some of these effects thanks to principles described in Newton's laws of motion.
Newton’s first law told us that the asteroid’s orbit would remain unchanged until something acted upon it. Using the formula for linear momentum (p = m * v), we could calculate that the spacecraft, which at the time of impact would be traveling at 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) per second, would have about 0.5% of the asteroid’s momentum. The momentum of the spacecraft may seem small in comparison, but calculations suggested it would be enough to make a detectable change in the speed of Dimorphos' orbit. However, mission planners felt that changing Dimorphos’ orbit by at least 73 seconds would be enough to consider the test a success.
But there was more to consider in testing whether the technique could be used in the future for planetary defense. For example, the formula for kinetic energy (KE = 0.5 * m * v2) tells us that a fast moving spacecraft possesses a lot of energy.
When DART hit the surface of the asteroid, its kinetic energy was 10 billion joules! A crater was formed and material known as ejecta was blasted out as a result of the impact. Scientists are still studying the data returned from the mission to determine the amount of material ejected out of the crater, but estimates prior to impact put the number at 10-100 times the mass of the spacecraft itself. The force needed to push this material out was then matched by an equal reaction force pushing on the asteroid in the opposite direction, as described by Newton’s third law.
How much material was ejected and its recoil momentum is still unknown. A lot depends on the surface composition of the asteroid, which scientists are still investigating. Laboratory tests on Earth suggested that if the surface material was poorly conglomerated, or loosely formed, more material would be blasted out. A surface that was well conglomerated, or densely compacted, would eject less material.
After the DART impact, scientists used a technique called the transit method to see how much the impact changed Dimorphos' orbit. As observed from Earth, the Didymos pair is what’s known as an eclipsing binary, meaning Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos from our view, creating what appears from Earth to be a subtle dip in the combined brightness of the pair. Scientists used ground-based telescopes to measure this change in brightness and calculate how quickly Dimorphos orbits Didymos. By comparing measurements from before and after impact, scientists determined that the orbit of Dimorphos had slowed by 32 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes.
One of the biggest challenges of the DART mission was navigating a small spacecraft to a head-on collision with a small asteroid millions of miles away. To solve that problem, the spacecraft was equipped with a single instrument, the DRACO camera, which worked together with an autonomous navigation system called SMART Nav to guide the spacecraft without direct control from engineers on Earth. About four hours before impact, images captured by the camera were sent to the spacecraft's navigation system, allowing it to identify which of the two asteroids was Dimorphos and independently navigate to the target.
DART was not just an experimental asteroid impactor. The mission also used cutting-edge technology never before flown on a planetary spacecraft and tested new technologies designed to improve how we power and communicate with spacecraft.
One such technology that was first tested on the International Space Station and was later used on the solar-powered DART spacecraft, is the Roll Out Solar Array, or ROSA, power system. As its name suggests, the power system consisted of flexible solar panel material that was rolled up for launch and unrolled in space.
Some of the power generated by the solar array was used for another innovative technology, the spacecraft's NEXT-C ion propulsion system. Rather than using traditional chemical propulsion, DART was propelled by charged particles of xenon pushed from its engine. Ion propulsion has been used on other missions to asteroids and comets including Dawn and Deep Space 1, but DART's ion thrusters had higher performance and efficiency.
In the days following the event, NASA received images of the impact from a cubesat, LICIACube, that was deployed by DART before impact. The cubesat, which was provided by the Italian Space Agency, captured images of the impact and the ejecta cloud.
Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Lucy spacecraft observed Didymos to monitor how soon reflected sunlight from the ejecta plume could be seen. Going forward, DART team members will continue observing the asteroid system to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit and determine what happened on its surface. And in 2024, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Hera spacecraft to conduct an in-depth post-impact study of the Didymos system.
Continue following along with all the science from DART, including the latest images and updates on the mission website. Plus, explore even more resources on this handy page.
The mission is a great opportunity to engage students in the real world applications of STEM topics. Start exploring these lessons and resources to get students engaging in STEM along with the mission.
DART Lessons for Educators
Use these standards-aligned lessons for grades K-12 to get students exploring the engineering and science behind the DART mission.
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DART Activities for Students
Explore STEM projects, slideshows and videos for students related to the DART mission.
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Resources for Kids
Check out these related resources for kids from NASA Space Place:
- Article for Kids: Asteroid or Meteor: What's the Difference?
- Article for Kids: What Is an Asteroid?
- Article for Kids: Why Does the Moon Have Craters?
- Article for Kids: What Is an Impact Crater?
- Facts & Figures: Didymos In Depth
- Facts & Figures: DART Mission
- Website: DART Mission
- Gallery: DART Mission Images and Videos
- Facts & Figures: Asteroid Watch
- Gallery: Next Five Asteroid Approaches
- Articles: Asteroid News and Images from JPL
- Eyes on Asteroids
- Eyes on the Solar System - DART Impact
- Quiz: Are You a Planetary Defnder?
- Center for Near-Earth Object Studies
TAGS: Asteroids and Comets, DART, near-Earth objects, planetary defense, Science, K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Teachable Moments