Edinburgh team part of NASA DART mission

The DART - OPTiK team will observe NASA’s asteroid deflection mission from their base in Kenya.

The DART - OPTiK team, which includes a collaboration of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Technical University of Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), set up a portable telescope at the TBI base in Ileret, Kenya and have been taking observations over the past month.

Tonight, they will observe NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) as the spacecraft launched in November 2021 deliberately collides with its target asteroid. The moment of impact will only be visible from countries around the Indian Ocean, with the dark skies of Ileret making it an excellent vantage point from which to observe this unique event.

DART Mission

The purpose of NASA’s first ever planetary defence test is to demonstrate that the path of an asteroid through space can be changed using a ‘kinetic impactor’: a spacecraft that is deliberately crashed into the asteroid at high speed.

Although the target asteroid is not a danger to Earth, it is expected that the technology being tested can be used, should an asteroid on an Earth-impacting trajectory ever be discovered.

The test will be carried out on a binary asteroid system, which includes a large asteroid (Didymos, 780m diameter) and a smaller moon (Dimorphos, 163m) orbiting it. The DART spacecraft will hit Dimorphos at 14,000 mph, slightly changing its orbit around Didymos. The impact time will be 00:14 BST on Tuesday 27 September, with live images from the spacecraft broadcast online by NASA.

Next steps

The DART- OPTiK team, as well as astronomer teams across the globe, will monitor the orbit of the moon to measure how effective the 'kinetic impactor' experiment was. The team will observe the aftermath of the collision over the coming weeks by monitoring the asteroid’s moon using its lightcurve, and obtain more detailed follow up data using larger telescopes at established observatories in Chile, as part of an international effort. 

A related European Space Agency (ESA) mission, Hera, will launch in the coming years to the same asteroid to study the effects of the collision in detail.

Kenyan collaboration

The DART - OPTiK telescope will also be used to do astronomical tests to discern whether the site at Ileret is suitable for a more permanent observatory in the future. Working with the Technical University of Kenya, the Kenyan Space Agency, and the Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative, the team hope to strengthen capacity for local astronomy and facilitate new research in the region.