NASA’s DART mission will fully deform the Dimorphos asteroid

An illustration of the DART spacecraft approaching the asteroid.

The DART mission will be the first to test asteroid deflection using kinetic impactor technology.
illustration: NASA

In order to protect the earth, some sacrifices must be made. NASA’s DART spacecraft is currently en route to a binary asteroid system called Didymos and will essentially crash into one small asteroid test a deflection method. But instead of leaving an impact crater as originally intendedthe DART spacecraft can actually deform the mini moonmaking it almost unrecognizable.

A group of researchers has come up with a new model simulated the entire cratering process and discovered that the asteroid deflection mission could completely alter its target and change its appearance much more than previously thought.

“The DART impact could deform Dimorphos globally, significantly altering its overall shape rather than just creating a small crater,” says Martin Jutzi, co-author of the to learnpublished in the Planetary Science Journal, Gizmodo announced in an email.

This image shows the possible shapes the asteroid could take after impact.

This image shows the possible shapes the asteroid could take after impact.
illustration: Courtesy of Martin Jutzi

As seen in the figure above, the mini moon is called Dimorphos (formerly known as Didymoon), could take any of these six possible forms after the spacecraft impacts. The entire cratering process could take a few hours, which is why previous models of the impact failed to predict the subsequent deformation of the asteroid. “Previous models could only simulate the first few seconds of such events,” says Jutzi.

Abbreviation for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the DART mission launched in November 2021 towards the Didymos asteroid system. Didymos is an 800 meter wide rock with its own 170 meter wide moon called Dimorphos, DART’s main target. The spacecraft will impact the mini-moon at 15,000 miles per hour (24,140 kilometers per hour) and attempt liftoffadjust its orbit. The impact is planned for late September or early October, when the pair will be within 11 million kilometers of Earth.

The purpose of the test is to experiment with kinetic impactor technology to deflect asteroids that may be heading towards Earth. NASA and other space agencies closely monitor asteroids that come too close to assess whether or not they pose a threat to our planet. But as far as defending Earth from asteroid impacts, there is no clear plan on what to do.

“These faint asteroids could actually be deflected much more strongly and eject larger amounts of material on impact than previous estimates have predicted,” Jutzi said. “These larger effects should be easier to observe immediately after the DART impact.” So the DART mission will still be able to conduct the experiment, just perhaps with a different result than originally expected.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also planning a follow-up mission to the pair of space rocks. ESA plans to launch theirs Hera mission in 2024, which will meet with Didymos through 2026 to study the impact crater left by DART and any other changes made to the asteroid. If Dimorphos has indeed taken on a different appearance, it may be provide valuable data about the asteroid itself.

“Ideally, we can learn something about the interior of the asteroid and not just about the surface,” said Jutzi. “This, in turn, would provide very valuable information about the asteroid’s mass properties and improve our understanding of asteroids in general.”

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