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LCO Scientists Participate in NASA DART Project

Feb 11, 2022

Launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART Mission) as seen from Vandenberg Space Force Base on November 23, 2021.  Image Credit: Tim Lister, LCO.

Three scientists from LCO watched the launch of NASA’s DART mission from the Hawk’s Nest viewing area of Vandenberg Space Force Base on November 23, 2021. The small spacecraft launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 10:21pm on the first opportunity in the launch window. The team from LCO was excited to see the beginning of the mission in which our telescopes will be active participants.

The NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission — the first test mission for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office — is sending a spacecraft to crash into the binary near-Earth asteroid system Didymos. The mission will test deflection of asteroids by crashing into Dimorphos, the smaller 160m diameter asteroid, on September 26, 2022. This system is an ideal target because it can be easily observed by ground-based telescopes. While no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size, including Didymos, has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years, only about 40 percent of those asteroids have been found to date.


Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid (65803) Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar would, in turn, measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit about the parent body.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

According to NASA, “DART is a planetary defense-driven test of technologies for preventing an impact of Earth by a hazardous asteroid. DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space.”

Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen is the Associate Administrator of the NASA Science Directive. On his Twitter account @Dr_ThomasZ, he had this to say about the DART mission: “Is NASA really crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid? We sure are — all in the name of planetary defense. The DART mission is a technology test to see if an impactor could change the trajectory of an asteroid.”

Las Cumbres Observatory, along with other ground-based observatories, is contracted to make observations of the near-Earth objects during the mission. Measurements of the time it takes for Dimorphos to orbit Didymos will show how much the DART impact has changed their orbital periods and the amount of momentum or “push” produced by the DART impact. Observations of Didymos from ground-based observatories will start at the end of June 2022, when Didymos will be visible from the Southern Hemisphere. LCO is well placed to perform these observations with telescopes in Chile, South Africa and Australia, in addition to facilities in the Northern Hemisphere.

The work conducted at LCO is under the direction of Dr. Tim Lister, who heads the group studying Near-Earth Objects. The team includes Solar System scientist Dr. Joey Chatelain, who is looking forward to following the progress of this literally groundbreaking mission and excited for the contributions LCO will make both in preparation for and in studying the results of the impact.

Dr. Tim Lister is also looking forward to observing the satellite impact later this year, “We are very pleased to be a part of the DART project. The unique capabilities of the LCO network will provide invaluable data that will be an essential element to the protection of our planet. Additionally the DART impact will occur during the night at LCO’s site in South Africa so if the weather is good, we should be some of the first people to see if there are short-term visible effects.”

This work is supported by the DART mission, NASA Contract No. 80MSFC20D0004.