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NASA DART Mission Recap with Astro Panda

September 26, 2022 was the day we made history. This was also the day that I debuted my first ever NASA social media/ press event experience that was truly an unforgettable experience. As promised with the two-part newsletter that I am sharing, I will be giving a more in-depth and detailed experience of this cosmic event and provide more insight as to the results and findings after the impact.

What is DART?

DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) which is the world's first-ever planetary defense mission test dedicated to investigate and demonstrate one method of asteroid deflection by changing an asteroid's motion in space through kinetic impact.

This method will have DART deliberately collide with a target asteroid—which poses no threat to Earth— in order to change its speed and path. DART’s target is the binary, near-Earth asteroid system Didymos, composed of the roughly 780-meter (2,560-foot) -diameter “Didymos” and the smaller, approximately 160-meter (530-foot)-size “Dimorphos,” which orbits Didymos. DART will impact Dimorphos to change its orbit within the binary system, and the DART Investigation Team will compare the results of DART’s kinetic impact with Dimorphos to highly detailed computer simulations of kinetic impacts on asteroids. Doing so will evaluate the effectiveness of this mitigation approach and assess how best to apply it to future planetary defense scenarios, as well as how accurate the computer simulations are and how well they reflect the behavior of a real asteroid.

Pictured below is an illustration of the mission:

DART’s Mission Objectives in a nutshell:

  • Demonstrate a kinetic impact with Dimorphos.

  • Change the binary orbital period of Dimorphos.

  • Use ground-based telescope observations to measure Dimorphos’ period change before and after impact.

  • Measure the effects of the impact and resulting ejecta on Dimorphos.

Event Agenda

The historic event took place at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland where yours truly, together with the whole team from NASA, Johns Hopkins APL and other members of the Dart Social Media Team and Press gathered to witness the live coverage and broadcast (click on the link to watch and relive the coverage from NASA TV) of the impact that started around 5pm EST and followed by a media and press briefing of the impact.

Pictured below are DART's final images prior to impact. You will notice the progression of images being zoomed closer as the satellite moves closer to its target as it ends with the last image being partially red that meant the satellite successfully hit its target.

Pictured above is Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen together with the whole DART team of JHU APL Mission Control in a celebratory mode after a successful collision.

Additionally, as part of the social attendees, we had the opportunity during the day to tour some of the APL facilities, have a meet and greet with the team behind DART and other science explorations and missions led by APL (such as the Dragonfly presentation and the New Horizons Mission) and last but not the least, we also had a private IMAX screening of a documentary called "Asteroid Hunters" with the director and writer, Phil Groves.

The whole NASA DART Social Media Team Attendees

I also took the opportunity to briefly speak with some noteworthy, respected subject matter experts of the field and had a quick snapshot souvenir shown below:

L-R: Dr. Kelly Fast (Near-Earth Observations Program Manager)

and Lindley Johnson (Planetary Defense Officer)

L-R: David Carrelli (Senior Guidance and Control Analyst, Johns Hopkins APL)

and Alice Bowman (Mission Operations Manager, Johns Hopkins APL)

With Dr. Zibi Turtle (Dragonfly Principal Investigator, Johns Hopkins APL)

DART's Post-Impact Recap

On October 11, 2022, NASA held a live streamed news conference to provide more insight and in-depth analysis of data and observations obtained over the past two weeks by NASA's DART investigation team. DART successfully altered the asteroid's orbit. This marks humanity's first time purposely changing the motion of a celestial object and the first full-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology.

Pictured from L to R from the DART update panel:

Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington

Nancy Chabot, DART coordination lead at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland

Tom Statler, DART program scientist at NASA Headquarters

This chart offers insight into data the DART team used to determine the orbit of Dimorphos after impact – specifically, small reductions in brightness due to eclipses of Didymos and Dimorphos. The new observations show the Dimorphos eclipses occur at different times (green arrows) than if the period were unchanged (gray arrows). The top timeline shows observations the DART team used to determine Dimorphos’ new orbital period, with two sets of that data (from Sept. 29, 2022, and Oct. 4, 2022) shown in detail. The observed decreases in relative brightness for each night’s dataset correspond to Dimorphos eclipses from a new orbital period of 11 hours and 23 minutes – demonstrating that the eclipse timing differs from pre-impact period of 11 hours and 55 minutes.

Truly, the post impact data shows remarkable results as the whole DART team was targeting an 11-minute difference of orbital period but surpassed it to 32 minutes. As coined by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during the press conference:

"DART was an international endeavor. Science benefits humanity. This is a unifying mission... All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet, after all, it's the only one we have..."

Knowing that NASA, The Planetary Defense and other international agencies and administrations are working hand-in-hand and side by side is a reassuring and hopeful feeling that we are truly invested in the longevity of humanity and the cosmos as a whole.

On a personal note, this is why I have decided to make the big changes and decisive steps in my career to devote my time in studying aerospace engineering and advocating space science because we are all on in this together. To end this two-part newsletter, I would like to share some personal pictures of this amazing event, together with new-found friends i have met during the event that share the same passion as I do! I hope to see you all soon once again.

Lastly, I had the honor of being invited as a featured guest at an Australian-based podcast, SPACE NUTS, to share my insight about the DART Mission. You can click on this link to listen to the whole episode and it can be streamed in major podcast platforms.

To the stars everyone. AD ASTRA!

Picture and Credit Info: NASA/ JHU APL

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