NASA’s Dart Mission
The DART mission will not only test our ability to deflect an asteroid by smashing into it, but it will also test a new type of propulsion system for NASA.
An ion drive is NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster-Commercial (NEXT-C). NEXT-C will use energy generated by the spacecraft’s solar panels rather than hydrogen-based propellant, as most rockets do. To propel the craft, an electrical field must be created that accelerates charged xenon ions to extremely high speeds.
In principle, ion motors can travel at far faster speeds than conventional rockets. The NEXT-C system was developed in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. It will also be tested on a mission named the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).
DART will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 1:58 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 24. (0658 GMT, or Nov. 23 at 10:58 p.m. local time). The spacecraft will collide with Didymos, Dimorphos, a smaller asteroid from a pair known as Didymos. Should an asteroid ever threaten Earth, scientists can calculate how much an impact might alter an asteroid’s orbit.
How will DART use NEXT-C?
But, before the mission’s dramatic conclusion, DART will test NEXT-C in space for the first time. NASA’s Deep Space 1 and Dawn spacecraft, which launched in 1998 and 2007, respectively, used an ion motor, but NEXT-C will be three times more powerful, according to NASA.
In a video, Jeremy John, chief propulsion engineer for DART and an engineer for Johns Hopkins University Advanced Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), remarked, “It’s a little bittersweet to know that we’ll only be able to operate for a limited length of time before we contact the asteroid.”
The 12 conventional thrusters aboard the spacecraft, which will be responsible for much of the spacecraft’s motions, including the final leg of its voyage when it plunges into Dimorphos, will be the principal force propelling DART along its mission.
However, NEXT-C will illuminate numerous times during DART’s voyage. The purpose of the maneuvers, according to the architects of NEXT-C, is to put the ion drive to the test. Its engineers will turn on the system to demonstrate that the ion drive can function solely on the power generated by the spacecraft’s solar panels — and that it works in space’s harsh conditions.
“And we’re just going to show that we can operate it in space since it’s one of the marvels of new technology. You can easily work your way up to getting it to space and operating for the first time “Elena Adams, a JHUAPL engineer and DART’s deputy project manager, said during a Nov. 4 news conference. “For NASA, that’s what we’re demonstrating.”