NASA’s Dart Spacecraft Hits An Asteroid In A Planetary Defense Test

Monday’s crash of a NASA spacecraft into an asteroid was a triumph for the agency’s strategy in the event that a potentially catastrophic asteroid ever posed a threat to Earth.

Nearly 7 million miles from Earth, the 1,260-pound Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, collided with the 520-foot-long, 11 billion-pound asteroid Dimorphos at a speed of 14,000 miles per hour. About 55 feet from the asteroid’s center is where the spacecraft made impact.

More than a week ago, the spacecraft launched its camera and a shoebox-sized partner, LICIACube, to picture the mission, confirming the collision.

Johns Hopkins University planetary scientist and mission team leader Nancy Chabot remarked after the impact, “This was a really hard technology demonstration to hit a little asteroid we’ve never seen before, and do it in such dramatic fashion.”

DART’s $325 million, 10-month mission is over. The asteroid was selected along with its companion Didymos since neither of them represents a threat to Earth.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson remarked, “There was a lot of invention and creativity that went into this mission, and I believe it will teach us how to one day safeguard our own planet from an impending asteroid.” By working together around the world, we have proven that saving Earth is a realistic goal.

The DART team reported that the mission ran “right down the middle of what our expectations were,” meaning no course corrections were necessary.

In spite of DART’s success in colliding with Dimorphos, NASA won’t learn the results of the impact for several weeks, if not months.

According to Elena Adams, a mission systems engineer, “certain stuff will likely come out in even days, maybe weeks” after the impact. However, “a couple of months” would be my best estimate for a “quantitative full answer.”

Instead of destroying the asteroid, the agency’s plan was to move it into a slightly different orbit around Didymos. With a period of 11 hours and 55 minutes, Dimorphos orbits Didymos once.

NASA is hoping the impact will cut that time down by 10 minutes.
But NASA argues that even a 1% change in an asteroid’s orbit could be enough to save a potentially catastrophic one from crashing into Earth.

According to NASA, there are currently about 30,000 near-Earth objects in our solar system, meaning they are within 120.8 million miles of Earth. There are more than ten thousand NEOs, the most majority of which are roughly the size of Dimorphos.

If given adequate warning, planetary security scientists would rather steer a dangerous asteroid or comet around than blow it up and send fragments hurtling toward Earth. For large asteroids, it may be necessary to utilize many impactors or a combination of impactors and gravity tractors, which would use their own gravity to drag an asteroid into a safer orbit.

Despite NASA’s assurances that no asteroid of that size will collide with Earth within the next century, just 40 percent of such objects had been found as of October 2021. Less than one percent of the estimated millions of smaller asteroids that could cause widespread damage are currently recognized.

However, astronomers think that for the time being, humanity may rest easy.

Adams declared that the first test of the planet’s defense system was a success. As the saying goes, “Earthlings should sleep better.”

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