SpaceX launches NASA probe to collide with asteroid at high speed

US space company SpaceX has successfully launched a launch that kicks off NASA’s DART mission. A SpaceX rocket has launched a probe that should collide with an asteroid at high speed next year.

The DART spacecraft, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, was successfully launched from California by a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX. It usually launches from Florida (with an easterly trajectory), because that is closer to the equator. California was chosen specifically this time because it has a more southerly direction and from California there are fewer landmasses on that stretch. The lower rocket stage is now also landed successfully on a SpaceX drone ship; that is the 95th successful attempt to capture a rocket booster and the 72nd time it has happened at sea.

The probe should hit the binary asteroid Didymos at the end of September or early October next year at a speed of more than 24,000 km/h. Specifically, DART will collide with the smaller asteroid Dimorphos; this small rock revolves around Didymos. The aim of the mission is to demonstrate the kinetic impact with Dimorphos and change the binary orbit very slightly. The orbital period of the larger asteroid will be adjusted by a few minutes.

The spacecraft will impact the 160-metre moon Dimorphos, which is expected to create a sizable crater and alter its orbit around the 780-metre Didymos. This will take place at a distance of 11 million kilometers from Earth and at a speed of 6 km/s.

This is done to learn more about changing the trajectory of such objects. That could come in handy someday, because there are still many undiscovered near-Earth objects of 140 meters and larger. Objects of that size can be dangerous for the earth. A collision could then be just enough to make such an object miss Earth.

The consequences of the impact will be mapped using terrestrial telescopes. In addition, the ESA will launch a spacecraft that should arrive at the binary asteroid in 2026. This ESA Hera mission will study the impact for at least six months. Two small cubesats with a size of 10 cm are also released on site for further investigation. One of the two cubesats will deploy a radar antenna to gain insight into the asteroids’ internal structure.