SpaceX Launches DART mission for NASA

Nov 24, 2021 | Asteroids, Our Solar System, Spacecraft, SpaceX

On November 24 at 06:21 UTC, Falcon 9 booster 1063 launched NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Station in California. 

DART is SpaceX’s first proper interplanetary mission and the first interplanetary launch from Slick Four East (SLC-4E).

Booster 1063 landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You stationed several hundred kilometers downrange. This is only its second catch since being moved from Florida earlier this year. 

After two upper stage burns, DART was released to begin its several month cruise out to the asteroid Didymos, arriving in September 2022. 

DART’s mission is to impact Didymos’ moon, Dimorphos, unofficially known as Didymoon. The goal is to demonstrate that humanity can use the kinetic impact method to change the orbit of an asteroid so that it doesn’t hit the Earth. 

Didymos is at no risk of impacting the Earth in the future, but by targeting the impactor at its moon, Dimorphos, NASA can measure the change in orbit without increasing the risk of either asteroid impacting the earth. The total shift in orbital period will be several minutes, at most.  

Before impact, DART will release the ESA-provided CubeSat LICIACUBE. It has two cameras with the delightful backronyms LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA(LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid), which will observe the impact of DART, the plume produced, and potentially even the impact crater before LICIACUBE itself impacts Dimorphos. 

Derived from the LORRI instrument on New Horizons, DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) is the sole instrument on DART and combines the roles of separate cameras for navigation and science imaging into one instrument. Like many other telescopes both on Earth and in space, DRACO uses a Ritchie-Chrétien optical tube attached to a CMOS sensor, giving it a 0.3-degree field of view. 

DART also hosts several technology demonstration experiments onboard, which provide major functionality for the spacecraft. The Roll Out Solar Array, which was first tested on the International Space Station, will be the main solar panels of the spacecraft. The NEXT-C (NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster) xenon Hall-effect thruster is another technology demo serving as the main propulsion for DART, alongside the usual complement of hydrazine thrusters. A Hall-effect thruster uses magnetic fields to shoot ionized xenon out the engine at 40 kilometers per second. The engine produces 236 millinewtons of thrust, which is three times the amount put out by the NSTAR engine used on Deep Space 1.

The final technology demonstration is SMART-Nav, an autonomous navigation system that will ensure that DART impacts Dimorphos. DART will be able to perform its mission, particularly the critical last hours of the flight, without human intervention. 

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