NASA DART deploys camera probe ahead of asteroid impact

Representation of DART (left) and LICIACube (right).

Representation of DART (left) and LICIACube (right).
Image: Italian Space Agency

DART will not survive its mission to deflect an asteroid, but the recently deployed LICIACube, a tiny probe equipped with cameras, will document the encounter in great detail.

from NASA Asteroid double redirect test (DART) is the space agency’s first demonstration of a defense strategy to protect against threatening asteroids. The 1,376-pound spacecraft is expected to crash into Dimorphos – the junior member of the binary asteroid system Didymos – on September 26 at 7:14 p.m. ET. Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth, but the experiment, if successful, will push the moon slightly off its current path. In the future, a similar strategy could be used to deflect a truly threatening asteroid.

DART will not survive the encounter, but its onboard camera, called DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation), will provide a first-person perspective of the collision. Nearby, LICIACube (pronounced LEE-cha-cube) will use its two on-board cameras to document the impact and its consequences.

DART team engineers inspect LICIACube before it is installed in DART.

DART team engineers inspect LICIACube before it is installed in DART.
Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

The controllers issued an order on September 12 for DART to release the 31-pound (14-kilogram) LICIACube, which it had been carrying since its launch on November 24, 2021. A signal confirming the deployment came an hour later, much to the delight of Simone Pirrotta, LICIACube project manager for the Italian Space Agency.

“We are so excited for this – the first time an Italian team has operated its national spacecraft in deep space,” he said in a statement. statement. “The whole team is fully involved in the activities, monitoring the status of the satellite and preparing for the approach phase of the asteroid flyby.”

LICIACube, short for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids, was designed and built by Argotec, an Italian aerospace company, with input from the National Institute of Astrophysics and the Universities of Bologna and Milan. The small probe, built from a 6-unit cubic bus—is equipped with two optical cameras, named LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid). Together, LUKE and LEIA will collect data to confirm the success of the DART mission and to inform future models of similar tests performed with kinetic impactors.

Pirrotta and colleagues are currently calibrating LICIACube by capturing dynamic images of distant celestial bodies. The small probe will receive a series of maneuver commands just before DART’s fatal rendezvous with the 520-foot-wide (160-meter) Dimorphos. The NASA spacecraft, traveling at speeds reaching 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kilometers per hour), will be destroyed by the impact. LICIACube will pass the asteroid approximately three minutes after the encounter to confirm the impact, document the spread of the resulting dust plume, attempt to capture an image of the newly formed crater, and document the opposite side of Dimorphos, which DART will never see.

“We expect to receive the first full-frame images and process them a few days after DART impact,” Pirrotta said. We will then use them to confirm the impact and add relevant information about the generated plume, the true valuable value of our photos.

Looking at the debris feather and impact crater, scientists hope to better understand the structure and surface material of the asteroid. Observations from the unimpacted hemisphere of Dimorphos will improve estimates of the dimensions and volume of the moon.

NASA and ESA plan to document the impact remotely. DART, if successful, will alter the speed of Dimorphos in its orbit around the 2,650-foot-wide (780-meter) Didymos “by a fraction of one percent, but it will change the moon’s orbital period by several minutes – enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth”, according at NASA. Didymos is about 1.2 km from its larger companion.

Around 28,000 near-Earth asteroids have been documented over the years, with around 3,000 discoveries made each year. None of these are known asteroids pose a risk to us in the next 100 years, but it is possible that a menacing asteroid will suddenly appear. The DART test, if successful, could equip us with a valuable strategy to mitigate these existential risks.

Related: NASA’s improved impact monitoring system could prevent an asteroid apocalypse.

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