‘We are making an impact!’ NASA slams spacecraft into asteroid in unprecedented test

A NASA spacecraft slammed into an asteroid at lightning speed on Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock threatens Earth.

The galactic grand slam occurred 11.3 million kilometers away, with the spacecraft – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – sinking into rock at 22,500 km/h. Scientists expected the impact to carve out a crater, send streams of rock and soil into space and, most importantly, change the asteroid’s orbit.

« We have an impact! » announced Elena Adams of Mission Control, jumping up and down and throwing her arms skyward.

Telescopes around the world and in space aimed at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. Although the impact was immediately obvious – DART’s radio signal abruptly ceased – it will take days, if not weeks, to determine just how much the asteroid’s trajectory has been altered.

« Now is where the science begins, » said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. « Now we’re going to see for real how effective we were. »

The $325 million US mission was the first attempt to shift the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.

« What an incredible thing. We’ve never had this ability before, » Glaze added.

WATCH | DART’s impact with an asteroid:

Sun in orbit for eons

Earlier today, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reminded people via Twitter that « no, this is not a movie plot. » He added in a pre-recorded video: « We’ve all seen it in movies like Armageddonbut the real stakes are high. »

Monday’s target was a 160-meter asteroid named Dimorphos. It’s actually a moon of Didymos (Greek for « twin »), a fast-spinning asteroid five times its size that threw off the material that formed the junior partner.

The pair have orbited the sun for eons without threatening Earth, making them ideal candidates to save the world.

Launched last November, the vending machine-sized DART navigated to its target using new technology developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, spacecraft builder and mission manager .

DART approaches Dimorphos, center, as the larger asteroid Didymos disappears from view. (ASI/NASA/Associated Press)

DART’s on-board camera, a key component of this intelligent navigation system, spotted Dimorphos just an hour before impact.

« Woo hoo, » Adams exclaimed at the time. « We see Dimorphos, so wonderful, wonderful. »

Days or months before confirmed new orbit

With an image beamed back to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland, watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed ever larger into the field of view alongside its taller companion. . Within minutes, Dimorphos was alone in the photos; it looked like a giant gray lemon, but with rocks and rubble on the surface. The last image froze on the screen at the end of the radio transmission.

Flight controllers cheered, hugged and exchanged high fives.

A mini satellite followed a few minutes behind to take pictures of the impact; the Italian Cubesat was released from DART two weeks ago.

The scientists insisted that DART would not break Dimorphos. The spacecraft weighed only 570 kilograms, compared to 5 billion kilograms for the asteroid. But that should be enough to reduce its orbit by 11 hours and 55 minutes around Didymos.

WATCH | The NASA panel speaks after a successful mission:

The impact should reduce that by 10 minutes, but the telescopes will need a few days to nearly a month to verify the new orbit. The projected 1% orbital shift might not seem like a lot, the scientists noted. But they stressed that this would represent a significant change over the years.

Planetary defense experts would rather fend off a threatening asteroid or comet, given enough time, than blow it up and create multiple chunks that could rain down on Earth.

Multiple impactors might be needed for large space rocks or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, yet-to-be-invented devices that would use their own gravity to pull an asteroid into a safer orbit.

« The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them know what was coming, but we did, » said NASA senior climate adviser Katherine Calvin, referring to the mass extinction there. is 66 million years old which would have been caused by a major asteroid impact. , volcanic eruptions or both.

Close up of what appear to be pieces of gravelly rock.
In this image made from a NASA live feed, DART crashes into the asteroid. (ASI/NASA/Associated Press)

Countless space rocks

The nonprofit B612 Foundation, dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes, has been pushing for impact tests like DART since its founding by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Monday’s feat aside, the world needs to do a better job of identifying the countless space rocks lurking there, warned the foundation’s executive director, Ed Lu, a former astronaut.

Far less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects in the deadly 140-meter range have been discovered, according to NASA. And less than one percent of the millions of smaller asteroids capable of widespread injury are known.

The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, promises to revolutionize the field of asteroid discovery, Lu said.

Finding and tracking asteroids, « That’s still the name of the game here. It’s the thing that has to happen to protect Earth, » he said.


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