NASA crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday, marking a victory for the agency’s plan if a devastating asteroid collision ever threatens humanity.
The 1,260-pound Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collided with the estimated 11 billion-pound, 520-foot-long asteroid Dimorphos at 14,000 miles per hour, about 7 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft impacted about 55 feet from the center of the asteroid.
The spacecraft had launched its camera and a shoebox-sized companion, LICIACube, to photograph the mission more than a week ago, confirming the impact.
“This was a really tough technology demonstration, hitting a small asteroid that we’ve never seen before, and doing it in such a spectacular way,” said Nancy Chabot, planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University.
The mission culminates in a 10-month journey for DART that has cost $325 million. The asteroid orbits a larger one called Didymos, and the two were chosen because they pose no threat to Earth.
“A lot of innovation and creativity has gone into this mission, and I believe it will teach us how we can one day protect our own planet from an incoming asteroid,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We are showing that defending the planet is a global endeavor and saving our planet is very possible.”
VISUAL EXPLANATION: Step into NASA’s plan to crash the DART spacecraft into an asteroid
The DART team said the mission required no adjustments and performed “right in the middle of our expectations.”
Although DART struck Dimorphos as planned, NASA won’t know what happens after the collision for weeks – possibly months.
“Some things will probably come out in even days, maybe weeks,” Mission Systems Engineer Elena Adams told reporters. “But I would say for the full quantitative answer, a few months.”
The agency’s goal was not to destroy the asteroid, but to shift its orbit around Didymos enough to alter their two trajectories. Dimorphos completes one orbit around Didymos in 11 hours and 55 minutes; NASA hopes the collision will shorten its orbit by 10 minutes.
But changing an asteroid’s orbit by just 1% could be enough when heading toward Earth, NASA says. There are nearly 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 about the size of Dimorphos.
Planetary defense experts prefer to nudge a menacing asteroid or comet out of the way with enough lead time, rather than blasting it into multiple pieces that could rain down on Earth. Large space rocks might require multiple impactors or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, devices not yet invented that would use their own gravity to pull an asteroid into a safer orbit.
Although no asteroids of this size are expected to hit Earth for the next 100 years, only 40% of these asteroids have been detected as of October 2021. Says NASA. Less than 1% of the millions of smaller asteroids that can cause widespread damage are known.
But for now, astronomers say, humanity should feel safe.
“Our first planetary defense test was a success,” Adams said. “Earthlings should sleep better.”
Contribution: The Associated Press
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.