Here is a video of NASA's DART spacecraft approaching the asteroid system and eventually smashing into asteroid Dimorphos at around 14,000 miles (22,530 kilometers) per hour.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) successfully impacted its asteroid target on September 26, ten months after flying through space. It was NASA’s first attempt at moving an asteroid. It was announced at 7:14 pm EDT by Mission Control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, that the mission had successfully impacted the space rock. DART’s impact with Dimorphos is part of NASA’s overall planetary defense strategy, illustrating what mitigation techniques could be used to protect Earth from a potential Earth-bound asteroid or comet.
“DART represents a major accomplishment for planetary defense, but it is also a mission of unity that benefits humanity as a whole,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “As NASA studies the cosmos and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this international collaboration turned science fiction into science fact, demonstrating one way to protect Earth.”
DART targeted the small asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, whose diameter is 530 feet (160 meters). A bigger, 2,560-foot (780-meter) asteroid, called Didymos, orbits it. As far as Earth is concerned, neither asteroid poses a threat. NASA’s one-way mission showed it is possible to navigate a spacecraft to intentionally collide with an asteroid to deflect it, using a technique called kinetic impact.
In order to confirm that DART’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, the investigation team will now use ground-based telescopes to observe Dimorphos. As a result of the impact, Dimorphos’ orbit should be shortened by about 10 minutes, or 1%. One of the primary objectives of the full-scale test is to measure the amount of deflection the asteroid experienced precisely.
Deputy associate administrator for NASA Headquarters’ Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Planetary Defense was a global effort that affected everyone on Earth. “Now we know we can aim a spacecraft with the precision needed to impact even a small body in space. Just a small change in its speed is all we need to make a significant difference in the path an asteroid travels.”
As a result of the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO), and SMART Nav algorithms that work in conjunction with the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation, and control systems, DART was able to identify and distinguish between the two asteroids, targeting the smaller one. Through these systems, the spacecraft was guided through the final 56,000 miles (90,000 kilometers) of space and intentionally collided with Dimorphos at around 14,000 miles (22,530 kilometers) per hour to slightly slow the asteroid’s orbit. A few seconds before DRACO’s impact, the spacecraft captured close-up images of Dimorphos’ surface.
A CubeSat companion provided by the Italian Space Agency, called LICIACube, was deployed from DART’s spacecraft fifteen days before impact to take images of the asteroid’s impact and the cloud that resulted. Researchers will be able to identify the effects of kinetic impact on asteroid deflection by combining LICIACube’s images with those returned by DRACO. Since LICIACube has no large antenna, its images will be transmitted one by one to Earth soon.
According to Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, DART’s success provides an essential tool to protect Earth from a devastating impact by an asteroid. “This demonstrates we are no longer powerless to prevent this type of natural disaster. Coupled with enhanced capabilities to accelerate finding the remaining hazardous asteroid population by our next Planetary Defense mission, the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, a DART successor could provide what we need to save the day.”
A worldwide team of astronomers used dozens of telescopes to observe the asteroid pair, which is just 7 million miles away from Earth. To determine how effectively DART deflected Dimorphos, researchers will characterize the ejecta produced and precisely measure Dimorphos’ orbital change in the coming weeks. In addition to validating and improving scientific computer models, the results will help predict whether this technique is effective as an asteroid deflection method.
Despite the fact that this was the first mission of its kind, the team exceeded expectations on every front, said APL Director Ralph Semmel. Aside from the very exciting success of the technology demonstration, DART could one day be used to control asteroid courses to protect our planet and preserve life on Earth. A precise measurement of Dimorphos’ mass and the crater left by DART’s collision will be conducted by the European Space Agency’s Hera project about four years from now.
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