On Monday, NASA slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid, marking a victory for the agency’s plan in case a devastating asteroid collision threatens humanity.
The 1,260-pound Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, collided with the nearly 11-billion-pound, 520-foot-long Dimorphos asteroid about 7 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft was about 55 feet from the center of the asteroid.
The spacecraft launched its camera and its shoebox-sized companion LICIACube more than a week ago to photograph the mission, which confirmed the impact.
“It was a really challenging demonstration of technology to hit a small asteroid that we’ve never seen before and to do it in such a spectacular way,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University and mission team leader.
The mission culminates in a 10-month journey for DART that cost $325 million. The asteroid orbits a larger one called Didymos, and the two were chosen because they pose no threat to Earth.
“There was a lot of innovation and creativity that went into this mission, and I believe it will one day teach us how to protect our planet from an incoming asteroid,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “We show that protecting the planets is a global task and saving our planet is very possible.”
VISUAL EXPLANATION: Enter NASA’s plan to crash the DART spacecraft into an asteroid
The DART team said no adjustments were needed to the mission, and it went “in the middle of our expectations.”
Even if DART hits Dimorphos as planned, NASA won’t know what happened after impact for weeks, maybe months.
“Some things will probably come out in days, maybe even weeks,” mission systems engineer Elena Adams told reporters. “But I’d say a few months for a complete answer quantitatively.”
The agency’s goal was not to destroy the asteroid, but to change its orbit around Didymos enough that it would change both of their trajectories. Dimorphos completes an orbit around Didymos in 11 hours and 55 minutes; NASA hopes the collision will shorten the orbit by 10 minutes.
NASA says that changing an asteroid’s orbit by just 1% would be enough if one were to head toward Earth. There are about 30,000 near-Earth objects in our solar system. According to NASA, meaning they come within 120.8 million miles of our planet. More than 10,000 near-Earth objects are the same size as Dimorphos.
Planetary defense experts prefer to deflect a threatening asteroid or comet, given enough time, rather than blasting it into several pieces that could rain down on Earth. A combination of gravity tractors and yet-to-be-invented devices that use their own gravity to pull large space rocks or asteroids into a safer orbit may require multiple impactors.
Although no asteroids of this size are expected to hit Earth in the next 100 years, only 40% of them have been detected by October 2021. NASA says. Less than 1% of the millions of small asteroids capable of causing widespread damage are known.
But for now, astronomers say humanity should feel safe.
“Our first planetary defense test was a success,” Adams said. “Natives should sleep better.”
Credit: Associated Press
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.
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