Sept 26 (Reuters) – NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully hit a distant asteroid at hypersonic speeds on Monday in the world’s first test of a planetary defense system designed to prevent a possible doomsday meteorite collision with Earth.
Humanity’s first attempt to change the motion of an asteroid or other celestial body is on a NASA webcast from the Mission Operations Center outside Washington, DC, 10 months after DART’s launch.
Images captured by DART’s cameras in the livestream showed the cube-shaped “impactor” craft, no bigger than a vending machine with two rectangular solar arrays, the size of a football stadium, bursting into asteroid Dimorphos at about 7:14 a.m. EDT (2314 GMT). About 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.
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The $330 million mission, nearly seven years in development, was designed to determine whether a spacecraft could alter an asteroid’s trajectory through sheer kinetic energy, moving it far enough to put Earth out of harm’s way.
Whether the experiment succeeded beyond its intended effect will not be known until more ground-based telescope observations of the asteroid next month. But NASA officials welcomed the immediate results of Monday’s test, saying the spacecraft had achieved its objective.
“NASA works to benefit humanity, so for us to do something like this is the ultimate fulfillment of our mission — to demonstrate technology that, who knows, could someday save our home,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a retired astronaut. , said minutes after the impact.
DART, launched on a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, has made most of its voyage under the guidance of NASA’s flight directors, handing over control to an autonomous on-board navigation system late in the journey.
Monday evening’s Bullseye impact was observed in near real time from the Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Second-by-second images of the target asteroid captured by DART’s onboard cameras elicited cheers from the control room and filled NASA’s live webcast TV screens just before the signal finally disappeared, confirming that the spacecraft had crashed into Dimorphos. .
DART’s celestial target was an oblong asteroid “moonlet” about 560 feet (170 m) in diameter that orbited a five times larger parent asteroid called Didymos, the Greek word for twin, as part of a binary pair of the same name.
Neither object presents any real threat to Earth, and NASA scientists say their DART experiment could not create a new threat by mistake.
Both Dimorphos and Didymos are smaller than the devastating Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.
According to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts, smaller asteroids are much more common and present a greater theoretical concern in the near term, making the Didymos pair a perfect test subject for their size. A Dimorphos-sized asteroid, while not capable of posing a planet-wide threat, could hit a major city directly.
Also, the two asteroids’ relative proximity to Earth and their dual configuration make them ideal for the first proof-of-concept mission of DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.
Robotic Suicide Mission
The mission represented a rare instance where a NASA spacecraft had to crash to succeed. Dart flew directly at Dimorphos at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 km), which scientists hope would be enough to shift its orbit closer to the parent asteroid.
APL engineers said the spacecraft likely broke apart and left a small impact crater on the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface.
The DART team said they hope to shorten Dimorphos’ orbital path by 10 minutes but consider at least 73 seconds a success, providing the practice as an effective strategy for deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth — if ever discovered.
Bumping into an asteroid millions of years ago might be enough to safely reroute it.
Previous calculations of Dimorphos’ initial 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 how far the asteroid is moving.
Monday’s experiment was also observed by a camera mounted on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART, as well as by ground-based observatories and the Hubble and Webb Space Telescopes, but images from those were not immediately available.
DART is the latest in a string of NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primitive rocky remnants from the formation of the Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago.
Last year, NASA launched a probe on a voyage of the Trojan asteroid cluster orbiting Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth with a sample collected from asteroid Bennu in October 2020.
The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of the 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. Although none are known to pose a foreseeable danger to mankind, NASA estimates that many more asteroids have yet to be detected in the near-Earth region.
(This story corrects the name in paragraph 6 to Pam to Pam)
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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maller and Stephen Coates
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