Sept. 26 (Reuters) – NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully slammed into a distant asteroid at hypersonic speed 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 alter the motion of an asteroid or other celestial body took place in a NASA webcast from the mission center outside Washington, DC, 10 months after DART was launched.
The live stream showed images captured by the DART camera as the cubic “impactor” vehicle, no bigger than a vending machine with two rectangular solar panels, crashed into the asteroid Dimorphos, about the size of a football stadium, at 7:14 p.m. EDT. flashed. (2314 GMT) about 11 million km from Earth.
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The $330 million mission, about seven years in development, was devised to determine whether a spacecraft is capable of altering an asteroid’s orbit by sheer kinetic force, pushing it off course just enough to knock out Earth. to be in danger.
Whether the experiment succeeded in reaching its intended impact will not be known until further telescope observations of the asteroid on the ground next month. But NASA officials greeted the immediate outcome of Monday’s test, saying the spacecraft had accomplished its goal.
“NASA works for the benefit of humanity, so for us it is the ultimate fulfillment of our mission to do something like this — a technology demonstration that, who knows, may one day save our home,” NASA Deputy Administrator Palm Melroy , a retired astronaut , said minutes after the impact.
Launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, DART made most of its journey accompanied by NASA’s flight controllers, handing control to an onboard autonomous navigation system in the final hours of the journey.
Monday night’s bull’s eye was tracked in near real time from the mission center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Cheers erupted from the control room as second-by-second images of the target asteroid, captured by DART’s built-in camera, grew larger, eventually filling the TV screen of NASA’s live webcast just before the signal was lost, confirming that the spacecraft was in Dimorphos. had crashed.
DART’s celestial target was an elongated asteroid “moonlet” about 170 meters in diameter orbiting a five times larger parent asteroid called Didymos as part of a binary pair of the same name, the Greek word for twin.
Neither object poses a real threat to Earth, and NASA scientists said their DART test couldn’t accidentally create another hazard.
Dimorphos and Didymos are both small compared to the catastrophic Chicxulub asteroid that slammed into Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species, including dinosaurs.
Smaller asteroids are much more common and pose a greater near-term theoretical concern, making the Didymos pair suitable test subjects for their size, according to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, while incapable of posing a global threat, could level a major city with a direct hit.
The two asteroids’ relative proximity to Earth and dual configuration also make them ideal for DART’s first proof-of-concept mission, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.
The mission represented a rare instance where a NASA spacecraft had to crash to succeed. DART flew directly into Dimorphos at 25,000 miles per hour (24,000 km/h), creating the force scientists hope will be enough to move its orbit closer to the parent asteroid.
APL engineers said the spacecraft was believed to have been shattered, leaving a small impact crater in the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface.
The DART team said it expects to shorten Dimorphos’ orbital path by 10 minutes, but would consider at least 73 seconds a success, showing the exercise is a viable technique to launch an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. to bend – if one were ever discovered.
A nudge to an asteroid millions of miles in advance could be enough to safely redirect it.
Previous calculations of Dimorphos’ takeoff location and orbital period were made during a six-day observation period in July and will be compared with measurements after the October impact to determine if the asteroid was moving and how much.
Monday’s test was also observed by a camera mounted on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released days in advance by DART, as well as by ground observatories and the Hubble and Webb space telescopes, but images of those were not immediately available.
DART is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the formation of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.
Last year, NASA launched a probe on a journey to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRIS-REx heads back to Earth with a sample collected from the asteroid in October 2020. Am now.
The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. While it is known that there is no foreseeable danger to humanity, NASA estimates that many more asteroids remain undetected near Earth.
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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional coverage by Joey Roulette in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Stephen Coates
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