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NASA’s DART spacecraft crashes into an asteroid to get it out of its way

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NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft deliberately crashed into an asteroid millions of miles away in a groundbreaking test for a possible killer rock that could one day be headed for Earth.

NASA described the mission as an “impact success,” saying the “vending machine-sized spacecraft” collided with asteroid Dimorphos, which is the size of a football stadium and poses no threat to Earth.

The impact occurred 7 million miles away, with the DART spacecraft hitting the rock at 14,000 mph. Scientists expected the impact to carve out a crater, hurl streams of rock and dirt into space and, most importantly, alter the asteroid’s orbit.

Telescopes around the world and in space pointed to the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle.

The DART radio signal abruptly ceased indicating an impact had occurred. Still, it won’t be clear for days or even weeks how much the asteroid’s trajectory changed.

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The $325 million mission was the first attempt to change the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.

Monday’s target was a 525-foot asteroid called Dimorphos, a small moon of Didymos, which is a fast-spinning asteroid five times its size that shed material that formed the smaller partner. The pair have been orbiting the sun for eons without threatening Earth.

A NASA transmission showing the impact.
(POT)

The DART spacecraft, launched in November, navigated to its target using new technology developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft’s builder and mission manager.

Its onboard camera, a key part of this intelligent navigation system, spotted Dimorphos just an hour before impact.

With an image returning to Earth every second, ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger in the field of view alongside its larger companion.

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A mini satellite followed it a few minutes back to take photos of the impact. The Italian Cubesat was launched by DART two weeks ago.

Scientists insisted that DART would not destroy Dimorphos. The spacecraft weighed just 1,260 pounds, compared to 11 billion pounds for the asteroid. But that should be enough to shorten its 11-hour, 55-minute orbit around Didymos.

This illustration provided by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA shows NASA's DART probe, right foreground, and the Italian Space Agency's (ASI) LICIACube, lower right, in the Didymos system before impact with the asteroid Dimorphos, on the left.

This illustration provided by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA shows NASA’s DART probe, right foreground, and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube, lower right, in the Didymos system before impact with the asteroid Dimorphos, on the left.
(Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

The impact should be 10 minutes, but the telescopes will need anywhere from a few days to almost a month to verify the new orbit.

Planetary defense experts prefer to fend off a threatening asteroid or comet, well in advance, rather than blow it up and create multiple pieces that could rain down on Earth. Multiple impactors may be needed for large space rocks or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, yet-to-be-invented devices that would use their own gravity to pull an asteroid into a safer orbit.

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Significantly less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects in the deadly 460-foot range have been discovered, according to NASA. And less than 1% of the millions of smaller asteroids capable of causing widespread injury are known.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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