Building planetary defenses for killer asteroids

University of Colorado Boulder
Jay McMahon

Above: Jay McMahon.

Header image: Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Jay McMahon is joining a groundbreaking NASA mission to test asteroid deflection technology.

McMahon, an assistant professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been named a participating scientist in the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).

DART is the first flight mission of NASA’s Planetary Defense Program. Scheduled for launch later this year, DART will travel to and then intentionally crash into the small asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits slowly around its larger companion Didymos.

Observations using Earth-based telescopes and planetary radar will measure the change in the orbit and determine the effectiveness of the impact in altering the motion of Dimorphos.

“We want to see how much we can deflect the asteroid. It’s definitely very exciting,” McMahon said.

DART was first announced in 2017. McMahon’s addition was announced by NASA today. His work will focus on using using the dynamical theory of interacting non-spherical bodies and radiative forces to better understand the changes in Dimorphos’s orbit caused by physical effects other than DART’s impact, in order to help interpret the post-impact Earth-based observations.

“After we impact it, the asteroid is going to move differently. If we think the change in the movement is only due to the impact, but it’s partially due to other factors, we need to know that so we can make a more accurate measurement of the effects of the impact,” McMahon said.

NASA’s goal with the mission is to demonstrate the possibilities of shifting the orbit of a small asteroid as a proof of concept in the event a large asteroid is ever discovered to be on track to hit Earth.

“On its face it still sounds kind of crazy. Can we run a probe into an asteroid and make it miss the Earth? But actually I don’t think we’re very far off in terms of technology or that there’s a huge amount of show stopping uncertainty,” McMahon said.

DART is slated for a November launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will intercept the asteroids in late September 2022.

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