NASA’s DART spacecraft hits target asteroid in first planetary defense test

Sept 26 (Reuters) – NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully slammed into a distant asteroid at hypersonic speeds on Monday, the world’s first test of a planetary defense system designed to prevent apocalypse Potential collision of meteorites with Earth.

10 months after DART’s launch, humanity has made its first attempt to alter the motion of an asteroid or any celestial body.

The live feed showed, at 7:14 p.m. ET, that DART’s cameras captured an image of the cube-shaped “impacter” vehicle, no bigger than a vending machine with two rectangular solar arrays, slamming into about a football. The field-sized asteroid Dimorphos (2314 GMT) is about 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth.

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The $330 million mission, which took about seven years of development, aims to determine whether a spacecraft can use sheer kinetic energy to alter an asteroid’s trajectory, deviating it just enough to spare Earth.

It won’t be known until next month with further ground-based telescope observations of the asteroid whether the experiment was successful beyond its expected impact. But NASA officials welcomed the immediate results of Monday’s test, saying the spacecraft served its purpose.

“NASA works for the benefit of humanity, so for us, doing something like this is the ultimate fulfillment of our mission — who knows, a demonstration of technology that could one day save our homeland,” said NASA associate administrator Pam Melroy, a retired astronaut, said minutes after impact.

Launched on a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, the DART was carried out under the direction of NASA flight instructors for most of the flight, handing over control to an autonomous onboard navigation system for the final hours of the flight.

Monday night’s bullseye impact was monitored in near real time by the Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Cheers erupted in the control room, and the second-by-second images of the target asteroid captured by DART’s onboard cameras grew larger and larger, eventually filling the TV screens of NASA’s webcast before the signal was lost, confirming the spacecraft Has fallen into Dimorphos.

DART’s celestial target is a rectangular asteroid “Asteroid” about 560 feet (170 meters) in diameter orbiting a parent asteroid five times larger, Didymos, part of a binary pair of the same name, the Greek word for twin.

Neither object poses any real threat to Earth, and NASA scientists say their DART tests do not erroneously create new dangers.

Both Dimorphos and Didymos are small compared to the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid that hit Earth about 66 million years ago and wiped out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species, including dinosaurs.

According to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts, smaller asteroids are more common and raise bigger theoretical questions in the short term, making Didymos pairings suitable for test subjects of their size. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, while not a global threat, could hit a major city directly.

Additionally, the relative proximity and dual configuration of the two asteroids to Earth make them ideal candidates for DART’s first proof-of-concept mission (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test).

Robot suicide mission

The mission represents a rare instance of a NASA spacecraft having to crash to be successful. DART flew directly into Dimorphos at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kilometers per hour), producing the force scientists hoped, enough to move its orbit closer to the parent asteroid.

APL engineers said the spacecraft may have been smashed to pieces and left a small impact crater on the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface.

The DART team says it hopes to shorten Dimorphos’ orbital path by 10 minutes, but considers at least 73 seconds a success, proving the exercise is a viable technique for deflecting asteroids during a collision with Earth — if ever detected .

A nudge on an asteroid millions of miles in advance is enough to change its course safely.

Early calculations of Dimorphos’ starting position and orbital period were made during a six-day observation period in July and will be compared with post-impact measurements made in October to determine if and how much the asteroid moved.

Monday’s test was also observed by cameras mounted on the miniature spacecraft the size of a briefcase that DART released days earlier, as well as by ground-based observatories and the Hubble and Webb Space Telescopes, but the images were not immediately available.

DART is NASA’s latest mission in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, the pristine rocky remnants of the solar system’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Last year, NASA launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid group orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is on its way back to Earth and will be released in October 2020. Moon collected samples from asteroid Bennu.

The Dimorphos asteroid is one of the smallest objects to receive a permanent name, and one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of various sizes tracked by NASA. Although none of the asteroids are known to pose a foreseeable hazard to humans, NASA estimates that many more remain undiscovered near the Earth.

(This story corrects the name in paragraph 6 to Pam from Palm)

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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Stephen Coates

Our Standard: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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