NASA has delayed the launch of its first ever planetary defense mission to deflect potentially dangerous asteroids from colliding with Earth.
The mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will send a spacecraft to test crashes in the near-Earth binary asteroid system called Didymos in 2022. NASA announced on February 17 that this year’s primary launch window will be July 21 to August. 24 is no longer an option. Instead, the space agency is targeting a backup window that opens Nov. 24 and runs through Feb. 15, 2022, according to a statement from NASA.
The decision to postpone the launch was made by the management of the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) following a risk assessment of the DART project plan. Postponing the launch of the mission will not affect the spacecraft̵
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The recent risk assessment revealed technical problems with two main components of the spacecraft, including its main instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO), and its roll-out solarrays (ROSA). The DRACO image processor needs to be reinforced to ensure that it can withstand launch, while solar panels are delayed due to supply chain problems due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At NASA, mission success and safety are paramount, and after careful risk assessment, it became clear that DART could not possibly and safely launch within the primary launch window,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, SMD Associate Administrator, in the statement. “To ensure DART is ready for mission success, NASA instructed the team to strive for the earliest possible launch opportunity during the secondary launch window to allow more time for DRACO testing and delivery of ROSA and provide a safe working environment through the COVID-19 pandemic. . “
The DART spacecraft will launch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA is working with SpaceX and the agency’s Launch Services program to identify the earliest possible launch opportunity within this secondary window.
DART will target a binary asteroid system consisting of a larger asteroid called Didymos, which measures approx. 775 meters wide and a smaller asteroid satellite called Dimorphos, which measures 540 feet (165 m) across. The mission will test a new planetary defense technique that requires the spacecraft to slam into Dimorphos to change the asteroid’s velocity through a kinetic impact. If successful, this technique can be used to deflect asteroids that pose a threat to Earth.
“Although COVID-19 was not the only factor in this delay, it has been a significant and critical contributing factor to several issues,” NASA officials said in the statement. “Pre-launch test equipment is a crucial step in all missions to ensure mission success, and project teams build time to consider schedules to address potential delays.”
NASA’s DART mission will also carry a small satellite called Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroid or LICIACube, which was built by the Italian space agency to observe the impact on Dimorphos and return images of the event to Earth. The European Space Agency is also planning a follow-up mission to Dimorphos, known as Hera, which will evaluate the results of the DART mission and study the site of action of the asteroid. The Hera mission is expected to start in 2023 or 2024 and arrive on the asteroid two years later.
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