Can humans escape the fate of the dinosaurs? NASA and SpaceX seek to find out with their Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), launched from the SLC-4E launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base in Santa Barbara County. By crashing the DART spacecraft into an asteroid at 15,000 miles per hour, and measuring the ensuing change in velocity, the agencies will determine if humanity has the power to change the path of such space debris, or if Earth remains entirely vulnerable to interplanetary threats.
The refrigerator-sized spacecraft, constructed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, features a DRACO camera, two solar arrays and a NEXT-C ion thruster. DART’s sole goal is to navigate interplanetary space, identify its target and speed into it at 6.7 km/s. The $324 million mission is a departure from NASA’s usual role of space exploration to that of a planetary defender.
Next October, after nearly a year of coasting, DART will intersect with a pair of asteroids in interplanetary space, Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos, which were both first discovered in April 1996 by the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Dimorphos will serve as the bullseye for DART, with scientists expecting the collision to alter its 12-hour orbit by 10 minutes. Scientists will measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit around its larger counterpart from telescopes on Earth to test the effectiveness of DART changing its orbit.
The spacecraft launched successfully on Nov. 23 at 10:21 p.m., traveling aboard the twice-used Falcon 9 B1063 rocket, which successfully landed itself off the coast of Baja California on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.” This is the same Falcon 9 that launched the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich mission a year ago this month.
The two faring halves that shielded the spacecraft from atmospheric damage at liftoff were also recovered from the Pacific Ocean.
Actor Bruce Willis was invited to the launch by NASA but was unable to make it, according to The Washington Post. “We didn’t want to miss that connection,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, referencing Willis’ role in the film “Armageddon” which centered around humans’ attempts to redirect an asteroid headed toward Earth.
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and the richest human on Earth, advertised the historic mission on Twitter with a meme depicting dinosaurs wearing Apple AirPods labeled, “Dinosaurs watch out for the asteroid! Oh no! They’re wearing AirPods. They can’t hear us.”
This mission marks the first time SpaceX will make contact with an interplanetary object, an important milestone as the company develops its Starship program in Boca Chica, Texas, which aims to land humans on the moon and Mars in the coming years.
“This will be really important one day,” Musk said on Twitter. “Earth has been and will be smashed super hard by meteors over time. Not a question of if, just when.”