A look at the tech powering NASA’s asteroid-deflecting satellite

The satellite is far smaller than the asteroid it aims to hit, but it could push it off course and prove out an asteroid deflection method.
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NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

· 3 min read

In the wee hours of the morning, NASA set out on a journey to crash into an asteroid.

The mission, dubbed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is simple. A satellite about the size of a fridge has been set on a collision course with Dimorphos, an asteroid with the diameter of the High Roller Ferris wheel in Las Vegas, and which can be found approximately 11 million kilometers from Earth.

NASA insists Dimorphos doesn’t pose a threat to Earth (and never will). It hopes to use this mission as a demonstration that if the time actually does come, we won’t have to send Bruce Willis and a team to blow up an asteroid. Instead, we’ll have—in theory—a method for deflecting dangerous asteroids: The idea is that if the satellite hits the asteroid with enough impact, it could change its orbit. It’s the first real-world test of NASA’s planetary defense capabilities.

“The most important thing we want to learn is how we could use such a tool in the future, should the threat arise,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, told Emerging Tech Brew. Zurbuchen said that scientists have only discovered 30%–40% of all asteroids in the solar system that could potentially be a threat to Earth, and further missions should be dedicated to identifying the remainder.

The satellite itself is the brainchild of researchers at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL), an R&D arm of Johns Hopkins University, but the project is a broad international, public-private effort.

“Designing and building a spacecraft, oftentimes, you’re not trying to crash it into something,” Betsy Congdon, a mechanical engineer at Johns Hopkins University APL and mechanical lead for the DART mission, told Emerging Tech Brew. “But a lot of the same principles that we do to build any other spacecraft apply. The only difference here is we were really cognizant of how much mass everything was, because you do want a certain massive impact.”

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Other partners include the Glenn Research Center, which worked on the ion engine, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which worked on navigation, Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube, which will deploy off the satellite before impact to capture photos, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, to launch the satellite, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which built the propulsion system.

The mission will cost an estimated $314 million, with the satellite set to make contact with the asteroid between September and October of 2022.

And in addition to the hardware created for this mission, the software is critical, too. Between launch and impact, an algorithm called SMART Nav will guide the way.

Michelle Chen, software systems engineer at Johns Hopkins University APL, oversees the mission’s SMART Nav algorithm, which is designed to help the satellite navigate toward Dimorphos autonomously. SMART Nav uses a camera as its eyes, taking images that SMART Nav then uses to find the Didymos system, where the target asteroid Dimorphos is located.

“We don’t know exactly what the Didymos system looks like. We had to simulate the environment quite a bit. We use a ton of different asteroid shape models because we don’t know what these two asteroids are going to look like,” Chen told us.

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