Increase / An artist’s concept of the DART’s electronics in the final moments before it suffers a catastrophic failure.

Next Monday, NASA will reveal its first attempt to change the orbit of an asteroid, an opportunity that will be very important if we discover an asteroid that threatens to collide with Earth. The planetary defense effort is focused on a craft called DART, for testing the redirection of a binary asteroid that will be aimed at a small asteroid called Dimorphos, which orbits the larger 65803 Didymos, forming a binary system. If all goes according to plan, the DART will head into a head-on collision that will slow Dimorphos, changing its orbit around Didymos. NASA has repeatedly emphasized that neither the asteroid nor any other material released as a result of the collision could pose a threat to Earth.

Ars will be at the Mission Control Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for the planned encounter, which will also be streamed live on NASA’s YouTube channels. Although we will know immediately if the collision went as planned, it may be several months before we know for sure that Dimorphos’ orbit has been successfully changed.

To prepare you for Monday’s festivities, we’ve rounded up information about the DART mission and planned follow-up observations.

DART and its ultimate approach

The DART spacecraft itself weighs a little more than 600 kg and is distinguished primarily by the absence of instruments. Its solar panels include an experimental concentrating solar cell that takes up less space to produce the same amount of energy as existing space equipment, and its main transmitter is testing a new antenna configuration. Its ion engine is also a new generation evolution of previous NASA equipment.

But all the action is handled by a single camera, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation, or DRACO, a 2560 × 2160 pixel monochrome camera. DRACO and the transmission hardware are capable of sending an image to Earth every second. During final approach to Didymos, DART will be at such a distance that a round trip will take more than a minute. Therefore, the final approach and targeting of the asteroid will be handled by an on-board navigation system called SMART Nav (maneuverable real-time autonomous navigation for a small body).

At this point, Dimorphos is so small that DRACO can’t resolve it, and it will remain that way until about an hour and a half before impact. As Evan Smith, DART’s deputy mission system engineer, described, the system will switch to onboard navigation about four hours before impact, and SMART Nav will track the large Didymos and use them for navigation until about 50 minutes before impact. or about half an hour after it may be resolved. 2.5 minutes before impact, the ion engine will be shut down and DART will collide at about 6 kilometers per second.

Although Dimorphos is only about 120 meters across, it will completely fill the view from DRACO about two minutes before impact. “We don’t know what Dimorphos looks like,” said Nancy Shaba, a planetary scientist at APL. “This will be the first time we see what this asteroid looks like.” According to Chabot, the final image, sent one second before impact, will look at features as small as tens of centimeters.

And then, when all is well, the transmissions will stop.

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