Thursday, July 6, 2017

DOOMSDAY AVOIDANCE – NASA has a plan of attack

NASA is putting its technology where much of ours fears lie. Taking off sometime in 2024, the idea is to have a satellite slam into an approaching asteroid. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, the plan is to have it deliberately crash into an asteroid (using all sorts of sophisticated equipment to aid in this – onboard navigation software, a special onboard camera…) The DART spacecraft will be utilizing NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – Commercial (known for short as the NEXT-C). Developed at the Glen Research Center located in Cleveland Ohio, NEXT-C offers electric propulsion which enables DART to have a wider launch window and results in decreasing the cost of the launch vehicle as well. 


The purpose is to demonstrate asteroid deflection – a technique for planetary defense. ALSO taking part in the entire demonstration is AIM – an ESA spacecraft that will arrive at the chosen asteroid many months before DART’s planned impact. FYI- the chosen asteroid for impact is Didymos’ small companion, ‘Didymoon’, or so it has been nick-named. Expected to be observed is a change in the orbit of this moonlet around its parent though before the fateful impact, observation of the binary asteroid (first such observation ever) with high-resolution imagery of the surfaces as well as measurements, densities and shape(s).

The AIM spacecraft will monitor the impact/planned collision (from a safe distance) and measure the momentum transfer, resulting plume and ejected material and more. AIM will also deploy its little buddy, MASKOT-2 (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) which is expected to characterize Didymoon before, during, and after the impact. AIM will also be the first spacecraft to demonstrate interplanetary optical communications. (Meaning : communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices.)

Didymos, the parent-larger asteroid, is a binary asteroid. Binary asteroid just means it is a system of two asteroids. You may recall that many years ago it passed the Earth, rather closely I might add, and was then found to be both the size of a stadium AND to have a small moon approximately 230 feet across orbiting it.

Yes it is smart to check this plan out on a smaller asteroid and yes perhaps then we can use this plan on a larger and threatening asteroid. 

Composition of an asteroid, distance from Earth and other characteristics make up the many areas to look at. DART may not offer a solution for all of them but certainly some. Unfortunately we also need to develop a method for a much larger & closer asteroid coming from, for instance, the Sun’s direction.

Still, this is an awesome project/mission and 2024 is on my calendar!

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