SpaceX, the private aerospace company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has been able to rule the industry thanks in no small part to its cozy relationship with NASA. The company, NASA's most valuable private partner, recently embarked on yet another audacious mission.
But this time, the mission wasn't motivated by a need to explore other worlds. Instead, it sought to protect the one in which we currently live.
Understanding the DART Mission
In late November, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The rocket had been handling NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) - the world's first mission to test planet-defending technology. NASA has been looking to defend the planet from potential asteroid attacks, and this mission was critical to its ability to do so.
DART was built and managed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland. The technology was designed to collide with asteroids, essentially changing their motion to enable detection and measurement. As a test, NASA plans to collide with an asteroid outside of our planet impact zone.
Using DART, NASA hopes to show that a spacecraft can travel to a specific asteroid and collide with it autonomously. The test will also provide critical data to help NASA and other stakeholders prepare for a possible asteroid collision with the Earth.
As the test procedure shows, DART will ride with LICIACube - a CubeSat designed and provided by the Italian Space Agency. LICIACube will be released just before DART's impact, capturing images of the impact and the resulting wreckage - which will primarily include ejected matter.
Dimorphos and Didymos
DART is expected to collide with a two-asteroid system, including a small moonlet asteroid, Dimorphos, which NASA is especially interested in targeting.
The agency will test kinetic impact technology - one of its many defense strategies for the planet. DART is set to collide with Dimorphos, altering its trajectory and knocking it off orbit around Didymos - another asteroid in the system.
Weighing about 1,210 pounds, DART should hit Dimorphos at about 15,000 miles per hour. It is expected to disintegrate upon impact, creating a fresh crater on the moonlet asteroid and slowing it down significantly.
The DART probe is programmed to send back high-resolution images once every second as it approaches its target - a procedure that should cover the last thousand miles of its journey in four minutes. All in all, the mission is expected to run for about 10 months.
At around 300 million miles from Earth, experts reassure that neither asteroid poses any present danger to the planet. And their distance from Earth offers more than enough encouragement for NASA to conduct the test safely.
SpaceX Grows From Strength to Strength
With the DART mission, SpaceX had managed to handle 26 flights in 2021 - its 129th overall for the Falcon 9 rocket. There is no doubt that Falcon 9 has been the most revolutionary rocket from the space company, with SpaceX still using it for most flights.
More big things are coming next year. Musk has confirmed that SpaceX is now in the final testing stages for its Starship rocket, and they are expected to begin final test flights in early 2022.
Speaking at a joint conference organized by the National Academies Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy, Musk explained that a Starship flight should happen as quickly as possible in 2022. Musk said the first orbital flight is currently pending regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has claimed that it expects to conclude all checks by the last day of 2021.
SpaceX's Starship test will include sending the vehicle into orbit and allowing it to complete less than one orbit before coming back to Earth. Upon success, the company will need to make a few tweaks before Starship can fly missions.
Starship's structure will include the Starship vehicle itself and a Super Heavy booster. When stacked, both vehicles should stand at a towering 394 feet. Musk has called it a "transport system mechanism for the greater solar system," and SpaceX will most likely want to use it for more demanding missions in the future.