Asteroid Deflection Planetary Defense Mission Target: “Dimorphos”

Didymos Asteroids

Asteroid 65803 Didymos is a binary near-Earth asteroid; the primary body has a diameter of around 780 m and a rotation period of 2.26 hours, whereas the Didymoon secondary body has a diameter of around 160 m and rotates around the primary at a distance of around 1.2 km from the primary surface in around 12 hours. Credit: ESA

The destination of ESA’s Hera mission for planetary defense – a tiny asteroid moonlet – has finally received its official name. After years of informal nicknames and temporary designations, the smaller of the Didymos asteroid pair has been formally christened ‘Dimorphos’ by the International Astronomical Union.

NASA DART Impacting Asteroid

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test, DART, mission is intended to collide with the smaller of two bodies of the Didymos binary asteroid system in autumn 2022. ESA’s Hera mission will then perform follow-up post-impact observations. Credit: ESA

A near-Earth binary asteroid system, named after the Greek word for ‘twin’, Didymos’s main body measures about 780 m across, with its previously nameless moonlet about 160 m in diameter, approximately the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid.

In 2022, this moonlet will be the target of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the first full-scale demonstration of an asteroid deflection technology for planetary defense. ESA’s Hera mission will be launched two years later, to perform a close-up survey of Dimorphos, along with its parent asteroid, following DART’s impact.

“Dimorphos is Greek for ‘having two forms’,” says Kleomenis Tsiganis, a planetary scientist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and member of both the DART and Hera teams, who suggested the name.

Hera Scans Didymoon

Using its laser altimeter Hera scans Didymoon’s surface. ESA’s Hera mission concept, currently under study, would be humanity’s first mission to a binary asteroid: the 780 m-diameter Didymos is accompanied by a 160 m-diameter secondary body. Credit: ESA –

“It has been chosen in anticipation of its future status as the first celestial body to have its ‘physique’ intentionally altered by human intervention, the kinetic impact of DART. Hence, it will be known to us by two, very different forms, the one seen by DART before impact and the other seen by Hera, a few years later.”

DART’s kinetic impact into Dimorphos is expected to alter its orbit around Didymos as well as create a substantial crater, which will be studied by the Hera spacecraft when it arrives several years later. The DART impact itself will be recorded by the Italian-made LICIACube CubeSat, deployed from DART several days earlier, with longer-term effects studied by telescopes on Earth’s surface and in space.

Surveying Dimorphos

Surveying Dimorphos. Credit: ESA – Science Office

“In the past we’ve referred to it as Didymos-B, or Didymoon, but the target of our mission finally has an official name, confirmed by the International Astronomical Union, IAU,” comments Ian Carnelli, managing Hera for ESA.

“It is one more small step towards making our destination seem like a real place, just as astronomers around the globe are observing what is currently just a minuscule dot in the sky to gather all the practical details they can, in support of DART and Hera mission planning. We can’t wait to see what is really looks like from up close and we are excited to plan close proximity investigations for at least six months in 2027.”

Didymos and Didymoon

Didymos and Didymoon. Credit: ESA – Science Office

The Hera mission will also deploy two CubeSats to perform additional detailed investigations explains Hera mission scientist Michael Kueppers: “The Juventas CubeSat will be the first ever spacecraft to use a low-frequency radar to scan the interior structure of an asteroid. Understanding the interior structure is a fundamental step in the full interpretation of DART’s impact with Dimorphos.”

Naming an asteroid pair

Didymos was first spotted in 1996 by Joe Montani of the Spacewatch Project at the University of Arizona. Originally assumed to be a single body, the asteroid system didn’t yet meet the criteria for an official name at the time; at minimum, observers have to consistently trace an asteroid’s orbit and confirm that it won’t merely fade away and get ‘lost’ before filing for a formal designation.

Didymos System Model

Simulated image of the Didymos system, derived from photometric lightcurve and radar data. The primary body is around 780 m in diameter and the moonlet or Didymoon is approximately 160m across. They are separated by just over a kilometre. The primary body rotates once every 2.26 hours while the tidally locked moonlet revolves about the primary once every 11.9 hours. Naidu et al., AIDA Workshop, 2016. Credit: Naidu et al., AIDA Workshop, 2016

Then in 2003, Petr Pravec, a planetary astronomer at the Ondřejov Observatory in the Czech Republic, was tracking the brightness of this then-nameless asteroid when he recognized a pattern consistent with a satellite orbiting the main body.

Didymos Lightcurve

The folded lightcurve of Didymos (panel a) can be decomposed into a contribution from the rotation of Didymos (panel c) and a contribution due to mutual events with Didymoon (panel b). Credit: Figure taken from Pravec et al. (2006).

He comments: “I am very excited that the satellite of asteroid Didymos that we discovered is going to be a target of the first planetary defense technology demonstration mission just 19 years later. I’m looking forward – along with the rest of my colleagues in the DART and Hera Remote Observations Working Group – to contributing to the success of these missions with further photometric observations of the binary system.”

Across the world, Lance Benner, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Mike Nolan, a planetary scientist currently at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Arizona, found similar evidence using radar facilities at Arecibo and Goldstone observatories. Pooling their findings together pointed to the existence of a binary asteroid.

Hera Scans DART Impact Crater

Hera scans DART’s impact crater. Credit: ESA – Science Office

The work done by Pravec, Benner, Nolan, and other astronomers was enough to earn a name for the binary system. The original discoverer, Montani, retained the naming right to suggest a name to the IAU. In the following year, he selected ‘Didymos’, which was quickly approved.

After Didymos was identified as the target for the DART and Hera missions, the team went one step further and decided to pursue a proper name and identity for the asteroid’s moonlet as well, helping distinguish the mission target from its larger parent. 

With DART a little over a year away from launch, Rivkin and the DART observation team worked with Pravec, Benner and Nolan— relying on the name suggested by Tsiganis — to first route the proposal through the Minor Planet Center, and then the IAU for the final stamp of approval.

Didymoon Seen From Didymos

Didymoon seen from Didymos. Credit: ESA – Science Office

“You could think it is just a name, but it is more than that”, says Julia de León, a planetary scientist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, in Tenerife, Spain, and one of the chairs of the Hera Remote Observations Working Group.

“We are putting all of our efforts in trying to know as much as possible about Dimorphos before the impact. Having a name makes this tiny, distant moon, more close and in certain way, more real.”

5 Comments on "Asteroid Deflection Planetary Defense Mission Target: “Dimorphos”"

  1. Sekar Vedaraman | July 11, 2020 at 11:21 pm | Reply

    Interesting. Hope Computer Simulations on the existing trajectory of these two celestial bodies and the risks related to such experiments are fully addressed prior to 2032. Most of the asteroids which could cause damage to Mother Earth are probably being tracked and monitored and their potential impact with planet earth is constantly bein assessed/
    from a risk management strategy point of view. The capture of the newly named sattelite using tractor beams (seen in Science fiction movies) may be a better option rather than impact and assessinfg the effect of the impact a few years later. The unintended consequences of such experiments could result in the very same thing we want to avoid.
    Ideally, we should assess current trajectory of known rocks which could impact the third rock from the sun and likelihood of the same, and prepare risk mangement strategies proactively for preventing the same. There may be many other options other than imapct. If the risks are negligible (preferentially non-existent), then such experiments and learnings from the same to divert incoming rocks makes sense.

  2. Lot of Greek going on in the world today. A couple of years ago, it was the salpinx. Now, it is the chimera. Today, there is Didymous. What’s next?

  3. Hera must be only good torturing innocent women eyed by her husband, how come she got talent for protecting earth from asteroids 😂

  4. ROB S MITCHELL | July 12, 2020 at 7:58 am | Reply

    So when is it, or isn’t it, supposed to cross earth’s path in the solar system? Seems scientists like to play around with names; Greek, Egyption, Latin, or otherwise. I’m not an astronomer, so don’t quite care unless the body decides to collide with earth.

  5. I am no where as smart as theses people at NASA or those that work with space. But I do not believe that this is the right thing to do. I don’t see how they can know all that can take place after they do this. It’s like throwing a small stone in a pond of water. At first the ring is very small. But then the rings get bigger and bigger and affects more and more as each ring moves out. How can they know what all might happen? If they don’t know what’s there?

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