It was a cosmic crash observed all over the world.
A NASA spacecraft intentionally crashed into an asteroid on Monday in a historic test of humanity’s ability to protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision with a space rock.
The agency’s DART probe, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, carried out the first-of-its-kind maneuver on a small, harmless space rock known as Dimorphos, which lies about 6.8 million miles from Earth.
The $325 million mission was designed to see if “pushing” an asteroid can alter its trajectory, giving scientists valuable real-world proof of planetary defense technologies.
The DART spacecraft, which is about the size of a vending machine, crashed into Dimorphos at 7:14 p.m. ET, flying head-on toward the space rock at 14,000 mph.
A camera aboard DART captured live images of the size of Dimorphos as the probe approached the asteroid. In the minutes before impact, the probe returned amazing detail of the space rock’s jagged, jagged surface.
“Oh my gosh,” said Elena Adams, a DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Cheers erupted as the spacecraft’s signal dropped, meaning the probe had, in fact, reached its target just after sending back its last images.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the DART team and said the efforts of the international group of scientists will help humanity protect Earth from approaching asteroids.
“We are showing that planetary defense is a global effort and that it is very possible to save our planet,” said Nelson.
NASA may take up to several weeks to confirm any changes in the space rock’s trajectory. The goal is to shorten the asteroid’s nearly 12-hour orbit by several minutes.
In a real-life planetary defense situation, even a small change in an asteroid’s trajectory, provided it was far enough away, could prevent a doomsday impact.
Dimorphos, which is 525 feet across, orbits a much larger 2,500-foot asteroid called Didymos. Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth, according to NASA.
The DART spacecraft launched into space in November and spent 10 months traveling to its asteroid target.
The probe was not expected to survive the accident. A small Italian-made satellite that was deployed as part of the mission was to fly 25 to 50 miles from Dimorphos a few minutes after impact to take photos.
In the coming days and weeks, ground-based telescopes will be used to study Dimorphos and time its orbit. A mission led by the European Space Agency, scheduled to launch in 2024, will study the asteroid’s impact crater and examine Dimorphos and Didymos in greater detail.
NASA expects the DART accident to take up to 10 minutes out of Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos. Over time, that relatively small change is expected to grow. If successful, it would demonstrate the effectiveness of carrying out such a maneuver when a potentially dangerous asteroid is millions of kilometers away.
The DART mission is operating as a proof of concept for asteroid deflection as a planetary defense strategy. The test data will not only demonstrate whether the idea works, but will also help NASA understand how it might be applied in the future.
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is tasked with searching for near-Earth objects that may pose a threat to the planet. The agency said no known asteroids larger than 450 feet in diameter have a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next 100 years, but scientists cautioned that only a tiny fraction of smaller near-Earth objects have been found.
While the prospect of “killer asteroids” may seem far-fetched, the threat is all too real, said Bruce Betts, chief scientist at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that conducts research, advocacy and outreach to promote space exploration.
The best-known example of a catastrophic impact occurred about 66 million years ago, when the Chicxulub asteroid, thought to be between 6 and 10 miles wide, slammed into Earth, triggering a sudden mass extinction. The incident wiped out the dinosaurs and killed nearly three-quarters of all plant and animal species living on Earth at the time.
The largest asteroid impact in recorded history took place 114 years ago, when a space rock exploded over a remote part of Siberia in 1908. The incident, which became known as the “Tunguska explosion,” brought down trees in more than 500,000 acres of uninhabited forest. , according to nasa. Mysteries remain about the Tunguska incident, but scientists have said the impact was most likely caused by a space rock measuring between 164 and 262 feet across.
Even much smaller space rocks can cause widespread damage.
In 2013, a tennis-court-sized space rock measuring about 65 feet across tore through the sky and exploded into the atmosphere about 20 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The explosion released energy equivalent to about 440,000 tons of TNT, according to nasa. The explosion and its shock wave blew out windows and toppled trees over hundreds of square miles. More than 1,600 people were injured.
“Chelyabinsk was a wake-up call,” Betts said. “After that, people started to take it much more seriously, and the idea of planetary defense became much more publicly accepted.”
Betts said he hopes the DART mission will continue to raise awareness of the importance of planetary defense.
“You are preparing for an unusual type of disaster, because it has the potential to cause catastrophic damage, but these things don’t happen very often,” he said. “But if we plan and put in the effort now, it will be worth it and we can actually prevent a big disaster in the future.”