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A NASA spacecraft hit an asteroid at breakneck speed on Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day the deadly rock threatens Earth. The galactic grand slam occurred on an innocuous asteroid 9.6 million kilometers away, with a spacecraft named Dart crashing into a small space rock at 22,500 km/h. Scientists expected the impact to hollow out the crater, eject streams of rock and debris into space, and most importantly, change the asteroid’s path.
Telescopes around the world and in space aimed at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. Although the impact was immediately apparent, Dart’s radio signal suddenly ceased, it will take days or even weeks to determine how much the asteroid’s trajectory changed.
The US$325 million mission was the first attempt to shift the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.
“No, this is not a movie plot,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.
“We’ve all seen it in movies like Armageddon, but the real stakes are high,” he said in a pre-recorded video.
Don’t want to miss a thing? Watch the final moments from the #DARTMission on its collision course with asteroid Dimporphos. pic.twitter.com/2qbVMnqQrD
— NASA (@NASA) September 26, 2022
Monday’s target: a 160-meter asteroid named Dimorphos. It’s actually the moon Didymos, Greek for twin, a fast-spinning asteroid five times larger that ejected the material forming the younger partner.
The pair have orbited the Sun for eons without threatening Earth, making them ideal candidates for world-saving tests.
Launched last November, the Dart-sized vending machine, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, reached its target using new technology developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft’s builder and mission manager.
Dart’s on-board camera, a key part of this smart navigation system, spotted Dimorphos barely an hour before impact.
“Wow,” exclaimed Johns Hopkins systems engineer Elena Adams. “We see the Dimorph, so wonderful, wonderful.
With an image beamed back to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland, watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger and larger into view alongside its larger companion.
A mini-satellite followed a few minutes behind to take photos of the impact. Italy’s Cubesat launched from Dart two weeks ago.
The scientists insisted that the Dart would not break Dimorphos. The spacecraft weighed just 570 kilograms, compared to the asteroid’s 5 billion kilograms. But that should be enough to reduce its 11-hour, 55-minute orbit around Didymos.
The impact should cut that by 10 minutes, but the telescopes will need anywhere from a few days to nearly a month to verify the new orbit. A predicted orbital shift of 1 percent may not sound like much, the researchers noted. However, they emphasized that this would make a significant difference over the years.
Planetary defense experts prefer to push a threatening asteroid or comet out of the way if they have enough time, rather than blow it up and create several pieces that could rain down on Earth. Large space rocks may require multiple impactors or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, yet-to-be-invented devices that use their own gravity to pull an asteroid into a safer orbit.
“Dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them know what was coming, but we do,” said NASA’s Senior Climate Advisor Katherine Calvin, referring to the mass extinction 66 million years ago that is believed to have been caused by a large asteroid impact . , volcanic eruptions, or both.
The B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes, has been pushing for impact tests like the Dart since it was founded by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Monday’s act aside, the world needs to do a better job of identifying the countless space rocks lurking out there, warned the foundation’s executive director, Ed Lu, a former astronaut.
According to NASA, significantly less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects within a lethal range of 140 meters have been discovered. And less than 1 percent of the millions of smaller asteroids capable of extensive injury are known.
IMPACT SUCCESS! Watch from #DARTMIssion’s DRACO Camera, as the vending machine-sized spacecraft successfully collides with asteroid Dimorphos, which is the size of a football stadium and poses no threat to Earth. pic.twitter.com/7bXipPkjWD
— NASA (@NASA) September 26, 2022
The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy, promises to revolutionize asteroid discovery, Lu noted.
Finding and tracking asteroids, “That’s still the name of the game.