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The Role of Astronautical Engineers in NASA’s DART Mission

December 13, 2022

Did you know the mission control team for NASA's exciting new DART project is stationed only minutes from Capitol Tech’s campus in Laurel, MD? And that astronautical engineers, like our own alumni, work for NASA and similar industries? 

The DART Mission 

The DART mission control center is located at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), less than 20 miles from Capitol Tech. The astronautical scientists and engineers there built and operated the DART spacecraft and continue to manage the mission for NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The overall project is part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, a joint collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Observatoire de la Côte d´Azur (OCA), and JHU/APL.   

Since the dawn of space exploration, astronautical scientists have considered the possibility of another devastating asteroid impact on the Earth, like that seen in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 66 million years ago. Such an event could cause a complete upset of life processes on Earth, including drastic weather changes, reduced access to sunlight, and dangerous particulates released into our atmosphere. Any of these changes in our ecosystem could result in the mass extinction of all species on Earth, making research in this area extremely important.  

Up until now, scientists have focused on near-earth objects (NEOs) like smaller asteroids, meteorites, or other potentially hazardous objects (PHOs), some of which impact Earth all the time. Typically, these objects do not cause much damage when they land, but that does not mean a harmful PHO doesn’t exist amongst the galaxies. Thus, this team of scientists set their sights higher, looking for ways to stop a much larger threat from making it to Earth. And the results are incredible. 

In September 2022, coordinates for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) were set on a collision course. And not unlike the plot of a major Hollywood movie, NASA launched its specialized spacecraft towards a neighboring asteroid as a test demonstration of an evolving planetary defense system in development. The launch proved to be a successful endeavor as the chosen asteroid, Dimorphos, was struck by DART and sent off-course on a new trajectory. And since this asteroid was nowhere near Earth at the time, it proved to be the perfect target for this test mission, as neither it nor its debris could do harm to the planet once struck by DART.  

Role of Expert Teams on DART Mission 

In order to get to this point, however, teams comprised of astronautical engineers, mission control technicians, and many other scientists, specialists, and professionals collaborated diligently to ensure the safety and accuracy of the mission. Projects like these cost millions of dollars, if not more, and require strict adherence to safety procedures during on-ground and in-flight action, so it is important for steps to be done correctly the first time. During the DART launch, Mission Systems Engineers and SMARTNav Engineers directed the autonomous flight path of the spacecraft and digital photography assets to assist with the targeting algorithm they developed to keep the spacecraft on course. Propulsion Lead Engineers created a new generation of ion-propulsion technology just to get DART to the asteroid. The Solar Array Engineers worked to supply the higher power required to get this new propulsion system working and deployed a larger ROSA array compatible with the DART setup. These are just a few examples of the expertise and personnel needed in this field, and the careers an astronautical engineering student can pursue once they complete their degree. 

Future of DART 

As for the future of DART, these teams of experts will continue to search the skies for asteroids and other PHOs, using this information for further research into deflecting potential threats. Students in our Aviation and Astronautical Sciences program will perform research quite similar to that of the NASA and APL engineers, working with NEOs and submitting information to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) database, as well as contributing to CubeSat studies and launches.  

About Capitol Technology University 

The Capitol Tech campus is centered in the nation’s technology hub near the DMV area where public and private sector employers including NASA, JHU/APL, and other top names in the industry are headquartered. Our Aviation and Astronautical Sciences program offers students an education in this exciting, booming industry with hands-on experience performing simulated mission control scenarios, like that with the DART mission, in technology-focused labs and centers. Students also directly contribute to research for NASA by searching the skies and performing data processing of NEOs using ALPHA, our on-campus observatory. Capitol Tech provides everything students need to become prime candidates to space employment recruiters. Several of our alumni work with NASA currently, and have served in crucial roles for projects like the James Webb Space Telescope launch. 

For more information on how to enter the field of space exploration, visit our website today! https://www.captechu.edu/fields-of-study/aviation-and-astronautical-sciences. 

 
 
References: 

Bardan, R. 2022, Oct. 12. “NASA Confirms DART Mission Impact Changed Asteroid’s Motion in Space”. NASA. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-dart-mission-impact-changed-asteroid-s-motion-in-space/#:~:text=Johns%20Hopkins%20APL%20built%20and%20operated%20the%20DART,project%20of%20the%20agency%27s%20Planetary%20Missions%20Program%20Office 

Goodyer, J. 2022, Nov. 23. “DART: Everything you need to know about NASA’s mission to deflect an asteroid”. BBC Science Focus. Retrieved from https://www.sciencefocus.com/space/dart-everything-you-need-to-know/ 

Science Daily. 2022, Sept. 27. “NASA's DART mission hits asteroid in first-ever planetary defense test”. Science Daily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/09/220927095429.htm 

Tavernier, L. 2022, Oct. 20. “The Science Behind NASA's First Attempt at Redirecting an Asteroid”. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved from https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/news/2022/9/22/the-science-behind-nasas-first-attempt-at-redirecting-an-asteroid/ 

 

Related links: 

ALPHA: First Views and Latest News | Capitol Technology University (captechu.edu) 

Astronautical Engineering Students Contribute to Telescope Technology | Capitol Technology University | Capitol Technology University (captechu.edu) 

James Webb Space Telescope team includes Capitol alums, students | Capitol Technology University (captechu.edu) 

James Webb Space Telescope to Launch Dec. 25! | Capitol Technology University (captechu.edu)