An on-orbit demonstration of asteroid deflection is a key test that NASA and other agencies wish to perform before any actual need is present. The DART mission is NASA's demonstration of kinetic impactor technology, impacting an asteroid to adjust its speed and path. DART will be the first-ever space mission to demonstrate asteroid deflection by kinetic impactor. The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Launch Window: November 24, 2021 – February 15, 2022
DART Impact: September 26 – October 2, 2022
Illustration of how DART's impact will alter the orbit of Dimorphos (formerly called "Didymos B") about Didymos. Telescopes on Earth will be able to measure the change in the orbit of Dimorphos to evaluate the effectiveness of the DART impact.
DART's target is the binary asteroid system Didymos, which means "twin" in Greek (and explains the word "double" in the mission's name). Didymos is the ideal candidate for humankind's first planetary defense experiment, although it is not on a path to collide with Earth and therefore poses no actual threat to the planet. The system is composed of two asteroids: the larger asteroid Didymos (diameter: 780 meters, 0.48 miles), and the smaller moonlet asteroid, Dimorphos (diameter: 160 meters, 525 feet), which orbits the larger asteroid. The DART spacecraft will impact Dimorphos nearly head-on, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid moonlet to orbit Didymos by several minutes.
The Didymos system is an eclipsing binary as viewed from Earth, meaning that Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos as it orbits the larger asteroid as seen from Earth. Consequently, Earth-based telescopes can measure the regular variation in brightness of the combined Didymos system to determine the orbit of Dimorphos. After the impact, this same technique will reveal the change in the orbit of Dimoprhos by comparison to measurements prior to impact. The timing of the DART impact in fall 2022 is chosen to minimize the distance between Earth and Didymos to enable the highest quality telescopic observations. Didymos will still be roughly 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) from Earth at the time of the DART impact, but telescopes across the world will be able to contribute to the global international observing campaign to determine the effect of DART's impact.
The DART demonstration has been carefully designed. The impulse of energy that DART delivers to the Didymos binary asteroid system is low and cannot disrupt the asteroid, and Didymos's orbit does not intersect Earth's at any point in current predictions. Furthermore, the change in Dimorphos's orbit is designed to bring its orbit closer to Didymos. The DART mission is a demonstration of capability to respond to a potential asteroid impact threat, should one ever be discovered.
The Lowell Discovery Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, one of the telescopes across the globe that will be used to evaluate the result of the DART impact. (Credit: Lowell Observatory)
The DART mission is being developed and led for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office is the lead for planetary defense activities and is sponsoring the DART mission. Current U.S. partner institutions on DART include NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Johnson Space Center, NASA Langley Research Center, NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA Kennedy Space Center, NASA's Launch Services Program, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Auburn University, Carnegie Science Las Campanas Observatory, University of Colorado, Las Cumbres Observatory, Lowell Observatory, University of Maryland, New Mexico Tech with Magdalena Ridge Observatory, Northern Arizona University, Planetary Science Institute, and the U.S. Naval Academy.
LICIACube, DART's companion cubesat, is contributed by Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) and built by Argotec. LICIACube will be deployed from the DART spacecraft roughly five days prior to DART's impact to capture images of the event and its effects. LICIACube Italian partner institutions include Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) research facilities of Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Instituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, and Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, and also L'Istituto di Fisica Applicata "Nello Carrara" (IFAC), Politecnico di Milano, and Universita di Bologna.
Illustration of ESA's Hera spacecraft and its two companion cubesats investigating Dimorphos and the crater produced by DART's impact. (Credit: ESA)
The Hera mission, a program in the European Space Agency's (ESA) space safety and security activities, is planned to launch in 2024 and rendezvous with the Didymos system in 2026, roughly four years after DART's impact. During Hera's mission, the main spacecraft and its two companion cubesats will conduct detailed surveys of both asteroids, with particular focuses on the crater left by DART's collision and a precise determination of the mass of Dimorphos. Hera's detailed post-impact investigations will substantially enhance the planetary defense knowledge gained from DART's asteroid deflection test.
The two missions, DART and Hera, are being designed and operated independently, but their combination will boost the overall knowledge return to a significant degree. NASA's DART mission is fully committed to international cooperation, and ESA's Hera team members are welcomed as full members of the DART team, to contribute to DART's planetary defense investigations and to fully inform Hera's mission.
Both DART and Hera team members are part of the largely international collaboration known as AIDA—Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment. AIDA is the international collaboration among planetary defense and asteroid science researchers that will combine the data obtained from NASA's DART mission, which includes ASI's LICIACube, and ESA's Hera mission to produce the most accurate knowledge possible from the first demonstration of an asteroid deflection technology. AIDA is the combined effort of the DART, LICIACube, and Hera teams, along with other researchers worldwide, to extract the best possible information for planetary defense and Solar System science from these groundbreaking space missions. The AIDA collaboration exemplifies the acknowledgment that planetary defense is an international effort and that scientists and engineers around the world seek to solve problems related to planetary defense through international collaborations.