While most people sat down to dinner, NASA tried to move a space mountain.
Out of sight for backyard stargazers, a vending machine-sized spacecraft self-destructed by colliding with a harmless asteroid shortly after 7 p.m. ET on Monday. The high-speed crash was part of the US space agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART.
The moment of impact marked the first time in history that humans had attempted to alter the trajectory of an asteroid, a piece of flying debris left over from the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. Most of the time, these ancient rocks pose no danger to Earth, even dimorphic, the one NASA just used for target practice. But at least three have caused mass extinctions, the most infamous of which wiped out the dinosaurs.
Stegosaurus did not have NASA.
“We’re changing the motion of a natural celestial body in space. Mankind has never done that before,” said Tom Statler, a program scientist. “This was the stuff of fictional books and the really cheesy episodes of star trek from when I was a kid, and now it’s real.
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Amateur Asteroid Hunter Watchers Keep an Eye on Menacing Space Rocks
NASA passed on the $330 million carefully orchestrated collision, giving viewers a deer-in-the-headlights experience. Through a camera on the spacecraft, the team of scientists and engineers, as well as the general public, were able to watch a 525-foot rock grow from a mere point of light to a boulder that obscured the entire frame. The broadcast took place almost in real time, with perhaps only a 45-second delay, providing an extreme close-up of an event occurring 6.8 million miles away.
For the last four hours of the spacecraft’s life, it flew on autopilot, steering ever closer to certain doom. The 1,300-pound spacecraft carried no explosive devices on its back. His “weapon” was his own body and the sheer force of hitting an asteroid at 14,000 mph.
Images transmitted to the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland abruptly cut off after the metal box died.
The first planetary defense exercise, at least the impact part, was a success. But whether DART was really a triumph, capable of pushing the asteroid out of its path, will not be known for some time.
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NASA won’t know if the DART spacecraft managed to move an asteroid’s orbit for weeks after the collision.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben
A planetary defense scheme
Scientists have liked the mission of driving a golf cart to the Great Pyramid of Giza. If it worked, the spacecraft hit left a crater, but it didn’t blow the asteroid to pieces. The LICIACube, a toaster-sized spacecraft provided by the Italian Space Agency, will fly over the disaster site three minutes later and take pictures of the damage.
NASA chose Dimorphos for the mission because it was an ideal specimen to track the results of the DART impact. It has likely had the same orbit, revolving around a larger asteroid, Didymos, for thousands of years, perhaps until now.
“This was the stuff of fictional books and really cheesy Star Trek episodes from when I was a kid, and now it’s real.”
Millions of space rocks orbit the sun. Most are found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but occasionally the rocks are pushed into the inner solar system, relatively closer to Earth.
There are currently no known asteroids on an impact course with our planet. However, scientists are keeping an eye on 30,000 large items out there and they estimate there could be 15,000 more waiting to be discovered. Using powerful telescopes, these astronomers are currently finding about 500 new sizable space rocks in Earth’s solar system neighborhood each year.
“An asteroid impact is an extremely rare event. Maybe once a century there’s an asteroid we’d really care about and want to deflect, and maybe only once every 1,000 years a Dimorphos-sized asteroid, on average,” Lindley Johnson said. , NASA planetary defense officer.
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But even the smallest rocks can cause immense destruction. An asteroid impact about 100 to 170 feet across would destroy a place like Kansas City. An undetected meteorite exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, causing an airburst and shock wave that affected six cities and injured 1,600 people. The rock was only 60 feet across, according to NASA.
Astronomers will use ground-based telescopes to study Dimorphos after the impact and take new measurements. The asteroid is known to travel around its companion every 11 hours and 55 minutes. Scientists expect the spacecraft to have strayed about 10 minutes from its usual orbit.
It could take weeks to confirm. But showing that the space program has the technology to push an asteroid could one day lead to a future mission to thwart an asteroid, decades before a potential problem.
“So we never have to worry about that again,” Johnson said.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.