NASA slams spacecraft into asteroid in first-ever 'earth-saving' effort 2 months ago

NASA slams spacecraft into asteroid in first-ever 'earth-saving' effort

A moment in history that could one day save humanity.

NASA has successfully smashed a spacecraft into an asteroid for the first time ever, in a mission that could one day save our planet.

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The space agency made history when its Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft [DART] crashed into the asteroid Dimorphos at 14,400 miles per hour on Monday night, to test whether the impact could alter the asteroid's orbit.

The asteroid was hit at around 7.14pm, located a staggering seven million miles from Earth.

The last complete image of asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, taken by the DRACO imager on NASA’s DART mission from ~7 miles (12 kilometers) from the asteroid and 2 seconds before impact. The image shows a patch of the asteroid that is 100 feet (31 meters) across. Dimorphos’ north is toward the top of the image. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL The last complete image of asteroid moonlet Dimorphos taken around seven miles from the asteroid and 2 seconds before impact (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)
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Dimorphos is harmless, and about a kilometre less in width than an asteroid that could destroy Earth. But space scientists hope the test will prove asteroid deflection – also known as the kinetic impactor technique – can be used to deter asteroids that are heading for Earth, and could therefore one day save our planet from an asteroid strike capable of ending humanity.

Speaking about the $330 million mission during a press conference last Thursday, NASA planetary defence officer Lindley Johnson said: “This demonstration is extremely important to our future here on the earth, and life on earth.”

Asteroid Didymos (top left) and its moonlet, Dimorphos, about 2.5 minutes before the impact of NASA’s DART spacecraft. The image was taken by the on board DRACO imager from a distance of 570 miles (920 kilometers). This image was the last to contain a complete view of both asteroids. Didymos is roughly 2,500 feet (780 meters) in diameter; Dimorphos is about 525 feet (160 meters) in length. Didymos’ and Dimorphos’ north is toward the top of the image. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL Asteroid Didymos (top left) and its moonlet, Dimorphos, about 2.5 minutes before the impact of NASA’s DART spacecraft (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)
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NASA and astronomers working with them across the globe chose their target carefully – selecting an asteroid they can monitor following the collision, as well as one that wouldn't send a previously harmless piece of rock spiralling towards Earth.

They picked a pair of asteroids; the 780-metre-wide Didymos, and its moon Dimorphos, which is 160 metres wide, about the size of the Great Pyramid.

In comparison, the DART mission spacecraft was around the size of a vending machine.

The asteroid is far too small and far away for the spacecraft to be steered into it from Earth, so an autonomous guidance system had to be used to target it. Didymos is so small, in fact, that it was only visible on DART's cameras about 50 minutes before impact. But despite this, the sat-nav worked its magic.

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The NASA team celebrates as DART impacts Dimorphos (Image: NASA) The NASA team celebrates as DART impacts Dimorphos (Image: NASA)

Because Dimorphos is already safely orbiting its bigger partner, they can study the change in its behaviour following the collision.

NASA and other agencies will now watch in the aftermath, using telescopes on the ground and in space to see if the impact changes the speed at which Dimorphos orbits its larger asteroid companion Didymos.

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DART approaches Dimorphos DART approaches Dimorphos (Image: NASA)

Despite the spacecraft smashing into the asteroid at thousands of miles an hour, the effect on the asteroid is expected to be small – changing its speed by just 0.4mm per second.

But over time, that should have a measurable effect on its orbit.

An illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft on a collision course with the asteroid Dimorphos. Pic: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL An illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft on a collision course with the asteroid Dimorphos. (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

Scientists of course have many other methods that they are exploring.

One such method is a “gravity tractor”, Dr Johnson explained, “which is just taking a spacecraft keeping with the asteroid and using nature's tug rope, gravity, the mutual attraction between the spacecraft and the asteroid will slowly tug that asteroid out of its impacting trajectory into a more benign one".

But the key is also knowing where all the potentially threatening asteroids are. Currently, there are just over 2,250 potentially hazardous asteroids near Earth that astronomers are aware of.

They estimate they have tracked the orbits of 95% of asteroids large enough to destroy life on Earth and none are currently thought to be on course for collision. But there are many smaller ones, and while no known asteroid larger than 140m across is likely to hit Earth in the next 100 years, they think they've only found about 40% of them.

Planet Earth and big asteroid in the space. Concept a potentially hazardous object (PHO). Potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs). Asteroid in outer space near Earth planet. Stony-iron meteorite is solar system. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. ______ Url(s): "https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2159.html" Software: Adobe Photoshop CC 2015. Knoll light factory. Adobe After Effects CC 2017. 3ds Max 2016. Planet Earth and a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

NASA hopes its upcoming mission 'Near Earth Object Surveyor', which is a space telescope currently in its preliminary design review phase, will help scientists discover any asteroids that could be hiding in the glare of the Sun, and give them sufficient time to deal with them in the best possible way.

So thankfully, scientists reassure us that it shouldn't be as chaotic as it looks in the disaster films.

“Hollywood and movies, they have to make it exciting,” Dr Johnson said, “You know, we find the asteroid only 18 days before it's going to impact and everybody runs around as if they're on fire. That’s not the way to do planetary defence.”