‘We have influence!’ NASA crashes spacecraft into asteroid in unprecedented test
A NASA spacecraft collided with an asteroid at blazing speed Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock threatens Earth.
The galactic grand slam took place 11.3 million kilometers away as the spacecraft – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – plowed into the rock at 22,500 km/h. Scientists expected the impact would carve out a crater, send streams of rocks and debris into space and, most importantly, alter the asteroid’s orbit.
“We have influence!” Elena Adams of Mission Control announced, jumping up and down and reaching for the sky.
Telescopes around the world and in space aim at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. While the impact was immediately apparent — DART’s radio signal stopped abruptly — it will take days or even weeks to determine how much the asteroid’s path has changed.
The $325 million US mission was the first attempt to change the position of an asteroid or other natural object in space.
“As far as we can tell, our first planetary defense test was a success,” Adams later told a news conference, filling the room with applause. “I think Earthlings should sleep better. Absolutely, I will.”
VIEW | DART’s impact with asteroid:
Centuries in orbit around the sun
Earlier in the day, NASA administrator Bill Nelson reminded people via Twitter, “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-long asteroid called Dimorphos. It’s actually a moon of Didymos (Greek for “twin”), a fast-spinning asteroid five times larger that hurled off the material that formed the junior partner.
The pair have orbited the sun for eons without threatening the Earth, making them ideal test candidates for saving the world.
Launched last November, the vending machine-sized DART navigated to its target using new technology developed by the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft builder and mission manager.
DART’s built-in camera, an important part of this smart navigation system, caught sight of Dimorphos barely an hour before the collision.
“Woo hoo!” Adams then exclaimed. “We see Dimorphos, so amazing, amazing.”
Days or months before new job confirmed
With an image beaming to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger and larger in the field of view alongside his larger companion. Within minutes, Dimorphos was alone in the photos; it looked like a giant gray lemon, but with boulders and debris on the surface. The last image froze on the screen as the radio broadcast ended.
Flight controllers cheered, hugged and exchanged high fives.
Their mission was completed, the Dart team went straight into party mode. There was little grief over the spacecraft’s demise.
“Normally it’s really bad to lose a spacecraft’s signal, but in this case it was the ideal outcome,” said NASA program scientist Tom Statler.
Johns Hopkins scientist Carolyn Ernst said the spacecraft was absolutely “kaput”, with remains that may have been in the fresh crater or flowed into space with the asteroid’s ejected material.
Scientists insisted that DART would not shatter Dimorphos. The spacecraft had a small 570 kilograms, compared to the asteroid’s five billion kilograms. But that should be enough to narrow its 11-hour 55-minute orbit around Didymos.
VIEW | NASA panel speaks after successful mission:
The impact should be 10 minutes from there, but telescopes need a few days to nearly a month to verify the new orbit. The expected one percent orbital shift may not sound like much, scientists noted. But they emphasized that it would amount to significant change over the years.
“Now the science begins,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “Now we’re really going to see how effective we were.”
Planetary defense experts prefer to push an impending asteroid or comet out of the way, with enough lead time, rather than blow it up and create multiple pieces that could rain on Earth.
Multiple impactors may be needed for large space rocks or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, not yet 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,” NASA’s senior climate adviser Katherine Calvin said, referring to the mass extinction thought to have been caused by a major asteroid impact 66 million years ago. volcanic eruptions or both.
Numerous space rocks
The nonprofit B612 Foundation, which is committed to protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, has been pushing for impact tests like DART since its inception by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Aside from Monday’s feat, the world needs to better identify the myriad space rocks that lurk 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 in the lethal range of 140 meters have been discovered. And less than one percent of the millions of smaller asteroids that could cause widespread injuries are known.
The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and the US Energy Department, promises to revolutionize asteroid discovery, Lu said.
Finding and tracking asteroids: “That’s still the name of the game here. That’s what needs to be done to protect Earth,” he said.