NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test: First Planetary Defense Mission Target Gets a New Name

NASA First Planetary Defense Mission Target

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

Nearly two decades ago, a near-Earth asteroid was discovered to have a moon and the binary system was given the name “Didymos” — Greek for “twin,” a loose description of the larger main body and the smaller orbiting moon, which became unofficially known as Didymos B.

In 2022, that moon 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. The DART spacecraft will execute a kinetic impact, deliberately crashing into the asteroid to change its motion in space. To mark this historic mission, Didymos B is getting an official name of its own: Dimorphos.  

“Upon discovery, asteroids get a temporary name until we know their orbits well enough to know they won’t be lost.  Once the Didymos system was identified as the ideal target for the DART mission, we needed to formally distinguish between the main body and the satellite,” said Andy Rivkin, a research astronomer and DART investigation co-lead at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is building and managing the mission for NASA.

A Global Effort

Just as defending our planet from potentially hazardous asteroids takes a global effort, so does naming an asteroid’s moon.

In 2003, astronomer Petr Pravec, at the Ondřejov Observatory in Czechia, was tracking the brightness of a still-unnamed asteroid when he recognized a pattern consistent with a small moon. Across the world, planetary scientists Lance Benner, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Mike Nolan, then at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, gathered corroborating evidence. Together, the findings pointed to the existence of a binary asteroid.  

The near-Earth asteroid was originally discovered in 1996 by Joe Montani of the Spacewatch Project at the University of Arizona, but its orbit needed to be confirmed before it could be named. Backed by the work of Pravec, Benner, Nolan and other astronomers, Montani suggested “Didymos” to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which quickly approved.

After Didymos B was identified as the target for DART, mission leads at APL encouraged the discoverers to propose a separate name for the system’s moon. Weighing many possibilities, they eventually went with a suggestion by Kleomenis Tsiganis, a planetary scientist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a member of the DART team. This week, the IAU announced official approval of the name.  

“Dimorphos, which means ‘two forms,’ reflects the status of this object as the first celestial body to have the ‘form’ of its orbit significantly changed by humanity — in this case, by the DART impact,” said Tsiganis. “As such, it will be the first object to be known to humans by two, very different forms, the one seen by DART before impact and the other seen by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera, a few years later.”

Dimorphos, measuring 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter, is the perfect target for the DART test because of its orbit around the larger main body Didymos (which measures 780 meters, or 0.48 miles, in diameter), and because of the pair’s relatively close proximity to Earth in late 2022.  

“Astronomers will be able to compare observations from Earth-based telescopes before and after DART’s kinetic impact to determine how much the orbital period of Dimorphos changed,” said Tom Statler, DART Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters. “That’s the key measurement that will tell us how the asteroid responded to our deflection effort.”

International Collaboration

DART’s impact with Dimorphos will also be recorded in space by LICIACube, a companion CubeSat provided by the Italian Space Agency that will travel on, and be deployed from, DART. Further investigation of Didymos and Dimorphos will be performed by ESA’s Hera mission a few years after DART’s impact. The DART and Hera mission teams are working together through an international collaboration called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA).

“DART is a first step in testing methods for hazardous asteroid deflection,” said Andrea Riley, DART Program Executive at NASA Headquarters. “Potentially hazardous asteroids are a global concern, and we are excited to be working with our Italian and European colleagues to collect the most accurate data possible from this kinetic impact deflection demonstration.”

DART is the first mission developed for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, and one piece of NASA’s wider planetary defense planning. In 2016, NASA established the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to lead US Government efforts to detect and warn of potentially hazardous asteroids and comets and to study means to mitigate the hazard when possible.

From Didymos B to Dimorphos, it’s a fitting name for an asteroid that will serve dual roles as a both a test target and a part of a blueprint for protecting the planet in the future.

5 Comments on "NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test: First Planetary Defense Mission Target Gets a New Name"

  1. Charles Brown | June 23, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Reply

    Could a line be connected between two separate asteroids? What would be the effect? Connecting two asteroids by a cable should link their momentum until the line breaks, but would it possibly move them into other orbits?

  2. Keith L Hearn | June 23, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Reply

    Why not Didymoon?

  3. How certain are we that DART wasn’t originally created to protect us from alien encounters? While asteroids and other space objects fly near Earth, it is impossible that we would be struck by something large enough to warrant money wasted on a useless planetary defense “weapon”.

  4. Kenneth marsh | June 23, 2020 at 11:06 pm | Reply

    In my mind i know that if conected to gether it would eventualy change trajectory sure. I believe depending on what part of the orbit of the moon on this astroid. You target and i would think. If it was hit on its outward going (away from earth )andwere to strik it at just the right angle it will work : but also i thought about producing a sound wave (extreemly high power )soundwave. Transmitted into the object couldnt the wave partical(sound wave) do anything to it change its orbit? I think alot about things and find that most the thing i have seen in my mind ir shown by something are in fact perfect examples. Im not crazy but recently i lost 6 hours and a bleeding blood vessle in my right eye and a veg memory of being a whitness 1 of 100s to see cause i feelt like there were others watched a weapon so powerfull but im not talking out if a syfy move i am talking a weapon that creates its own partical. Hay i ve thought alot lately and i know everything kniwn isnt all reliesed. And i believe we are looking at alien constructs every day in the void and there are things out there our scientists are just now seeing things. Im a t least looking for my needed answers i dont belong here and felt like that all my life. And said it as well to everyone.

  5. James P Dodson | June 23, 2020 at 11:51 pm | Reply

    We should send trump and cabinet to dydimos a and pelosi to b and see who can get the most from their efforts

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