NASA is set to make history today when it smashes a spacecraft into an asteroid at over 14,700 miles per hour as part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission—and the LICIACube satellite will capture it on camera.
The DART mission was launched in November 2021. NASA scientists want to find out if it is possible to change an asteroid’s path through space by ramming something into it—a maneuver that has never been tried before.
The asteroid that will be targeted by the DART mission is not a threat to Earth, but it is a useful test candidate. The target is a binary asteroid system—a large, 2,560 foot space rock known as Didymos that is orbited by a small, rocky moon called Dimorphos, which is 525 feet in diameter.
The 1,260lb DART spacecraft will smash into Dimorphos, shortening the time it takes to orbit Didymos by several minutes. This minor orbital change should have an effect on Dimorphos’ path through space, which Earth-based telescopes will be able to detect.
LICIACube was packed away inside the DART spacecraft until September 11, when it separated from the NASA craft. It has been floating through space independently ever since.
ASI has already released images taken by LICIACube as it calibrates itself ahead of the collision. One photo shows a partially silhouetted Earth taken from a distance of about 8.6 million miles, while another shows several stars in the Pleiades star cluster.
As the DART spacecraft is destroyed, its fate will be chronicled by LICIACube’s cameras. LICIACube is an instrument created by the Italian Space Agency, and its name stands for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids.
The camera is designed to document the effects of the DART impact and capture images of the asteroid’s surface. It will use two optical cameras to look at the debris ejected by the collision.
It is hoped that by observing this plume of debris, scientists will be able to characterize the asteroid’s surface material and also get a measure of the size of the impact crater.
These observations will initially be used to confirm that impact has taken place. Study of the plume debris will also deliver valuable information to inform computer models of future satellite-asteroid impacts.
The DART spacecraft is due to impact the asteroid at 7:14 p.m. ET on September 26, though NASA will begin streaming live coverage from 6 p.m. The live stream can be watched on the space agency’s website or YouTube channel. A feed of pictures from the spacecraft will be released on NASA’s Media Channel from 5:30 p.m.