America’s space agency is now waiting to see whether it was able to knock an incoming asteroid off course
NASA has completed its first-ever “planetary defense” test, deliberately crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid floating millions of miles away from Earth in an effort to change its path. The agency said it made a direct hit, but is still awaiting data from the experiment.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft made impact with the asteroid Dimorphos on Monday, colliding with the 11 billion-pound, 520-foot long object at a speed of some 14,000 miles per hour. NASA said the craft missed the center of the asteroid by just 55 feet, with the moment of impact captured on video by a camera mounted on the craft.
“It’s been a successful completion of the first part of the world’s first planetary defense test. There were years of hard work, there was a lot of innovation and creativity that went into this mission,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, adding “I believe it’s going to teach us how, one day, to protect our own planet from an incoming asteroid.”
While the space agency was able to confirm the impact, it could take up to “a couple of months” before the full effects of the experiment are known, NASA mission systems engineer Elena Adams told reporters, though noted that some of the data will be available in a matter of days.
The mission did not aim to destroy the asteroid, which poses no threat to Earth, but rather to change its course. Dimorphos orbits another asteroid named Didymos, and researchers will record the results of the collision by observing the changed trajectories of both objects.
If reached soon enough, altering an asteroid’s course by just 1% could be sufficient to avert a lethal collision if one were headed for Earth, according to NASA, which says there are some 30,000 known near-Earth objects in the solar system. While the majority of them are smaller than 100 meters in diameter, around one-third are near the size of Dimorphos at 170 meters, or roughly as large as a football stadium.
NASA does not believe any asteroids of that size are slated to hit Earth anytime in the next century, but researchers regularly discover new objects flying through space. In May, scientists at a California-based firm identified more than 100 previously unknown asteroids, leaving it unknown how many undetected rocks may pose a threat to Earth.
The DART craft was launched last November in coordination with international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and cost some $325 million. The collider was somewhat sparsely equipped, bringing only sensors for navigation and one aperture camera dubbed DRACO, which caught Monday’s impact on film.