CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A NASA spacecraft slammed into an asteroid at breakneck speed Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock threatens Earth.
The galactic grand slam occurred on a harmless asteroid 7 million miles (9.6 million kilometers) away, with the spacecraft named Dart plowing through the rock at 14,000 mph (22,500 km/h). Scientists expected the impact to carve a crater, throw streams of rock and dirt into space and, most importantly, alter the asteroid’s orbit.
Telescopes around the world and in space were ready to capture the spectacle. While the impact should be immediately obvious, with Dart’s radio signal coming to an abrupt halt, it will take days or even weeks to determine how much the asteroid’s path was changed.
The $325 million mission is the first attempt to change the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.
“No, this is not a movie plot,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted earlier in the day. “We’ve all seen it in movies like ‘Armageddon,’ but the real-life stakes are high,” he said in a pre-recorded video.
Monday’s target: a 525-foot (160-meter) asteroid called Dimorphos. It’s actually a moon of Didymos, Greek for twin, a fast-spinning asteroid five times larger that threw up the material that made up the smaller pair.
The pair have been orbiting the sun for eons without threatening Earth, making them ideal candidates to save the world.
Launched last November, the vending machine-sized Dart (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test) navigated its way to its target using new technology developed by the spacecraft’s Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and mission manager.
A mini satellite followed a few minutes behind to take pictures of the impact. The Italian Cubesat was launched from Dart two weeks ago.
The scientists insisted that Dart would not break Dimorphos. The spacecraft weighed a scant 1,260 pounds (570 kilograms), compared to the asteroid’s 11 billion pounds (5 billion kilograms). But that should be enough to reduce its orbit of 11 hours and 55 minutes around Didymos.
The impact should subside within 10 minutes, but the telescopes will need anywhere from a few days to nearly a month to verify the new orbit. Scientists noted that the predicted orbital change of 1% might not sound like much. But they stressed that it would be a significant change over the years.
Planetary defense experts prefer to ward off a threatening asteroid or comet, given enough time, rather than blow it up and create multiple pieces that could rain down on Earth. Multiple impactors might 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.
“The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them know what was coming, but we did,” said NASA senior climate advisor Katherine Calvin, referring to the 66-million-year-old mass extinction that it is believed to have been caused by a large asteroid impact. , volcanic eruptions or both.
The nonprofit B612 Foundation, dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes, has been pushing for impact tests like Dart since it was founded by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Monday’s dramatic action aside, the world needs to do a better job of identifying the countless space rocks out there, warned the foundation’s executive director, Ed Lu, a former astronaut.
According to NASA, significantly less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects within the deadly range of 460 feet (140 meters) have been discovered. And less than 1% of the millions of smaller asteroids capable of widespread injury are known.
The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy, promises to revolutionize the field of asteroid discovery, Lu noted.
Finding and tracking asteroids, “That’s still the name of the game here. That’s what has to happen to protect the Earth,” he said.
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