As humanity’s first test of planetary defense, a NASA spacecraft deliberately smashed into an asteroid.
It happened at 7:14 p.m. ET to cheers from the mission team in Laurel, Maryland. This year marks the 10-month anniversary of the launch of the DART mission.
Even though Dimorphos was not a threat to Earth, this demonstration could determine how to deflect future space rocks that pose a threat to Earth.
“We are entering a new era of humankind, one in which we might be able to protect ourselves from something like an asteroid impact”, said Lori Glaze, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director. “It’s amazing. That’s a capability we’ve never had before.”
Didymos and Dimorphos were relatively close to Earth at the time of impact 6.6 million miles. The team estimates that the spacecraft hit the asteroid about 55 feet away from the space rock’s center.
As well as impacting an asteroid, DART aims to alter its orbit in space, but scientists will have to wait about two months to find out if its orbit has changed.
Dimorphous is a small asteroid moonlet orbiting Didymos, a near-Earth asteroid. NASA officials have said the asteroid system poses no threat to Earth, making it ideal for testing a kinetic impact – which may be needed if an asteroid ever hits.
For the first time, the agency demonstrated deflection technology capable of protecting the planet at full scale.
“We will measurably change the orbit of a celestial body for the first time in the universe,” said Robert Braun, director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s Space Exploration Sector.
Near-Earth objects are asteroids and comets with orbits that place them within 30 million miles of Earth. Detecting the threat of near-Earth objects, or NEOs, that could cause grave harm is a primary focus of NASA and other space organizations around the world.
Almost two decades have passed since Didymos was discovered by astronomers. The Greek word means “twin.”. It measures about 2,560 feet in diameter.
The diameter of Dimorphos is 525 feet, and its name means “two forms.”
In order to make a close encounter with the tiny moon, DART autonomously guided itself using images taken by its Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation.
The images streamed back to Earth at a rate of one per second, providing a “pretty stunning” view of the moon, according to Nancy Chabot, planetary scientist and DART coordination lead at the Applied Physics Laboratory.
Dimorphos collided with the spacecraft at a speed of 13,421 miles per hour.
It was also revealed for the first time what Dimorphos looks like by the DART spacecraft.
This collision was recorded by LICIACube, or Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency.
The briefcase-size CubeSat deployed from the spacecraft and traveled behind it to record what happens.
After impact, the CubeSat flew by Dimorphos to capture images and video. While not immediately available, the imagery will be streamed back to Earth over the coming days and weeks.
In particular, the data collected by DART and Hera will contribute to the understanding of what kind of force is capable of shifting the orbit of a near-Earth asteroid with the potential to collide with the earth.
For more on this story, please consider these sources:
- What We Learned From NASA’s DART Mission The New York Times
- Watch live: NASA’s DART first-ever test of planetary defense with Asteroid Dimorphos | DW News DW News
- Opinion | Three cheers for NASA’s asteroid smasher The Washington Post
- NASA’s DART mission successfully slams into an asteroid CNN
- Dimorphos: Nasa flies spacecraft into asteroid in direct hit BBC