Why is deliberately smashing a satellite into an asteroid good news?

Photo from NASA

In a mission to save the world against a rogue asteroid, the very thing that killed the dinosaurs millions of years ago, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) intentionally slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid seven million miles away. On September 26, 2022, at 7:14 pm EST, a vehicle nearly the size of a golf cart smashed into an asteroid approximately the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The target Dimorphos is roughly 525 feet in length and orbits a much larger asteroid, Didymos. The intention of the mission is to see how much DART’s impact alters Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, as well as marking the world’s first in space test for planetary defense against near-Earth objects (NEOs). 

A 10-month Process Proven Successful

Launched in November 2021 from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, DART began its 10-month process of reaching Dimorphos. And on Monday evening, traveling at 14,000 miles per hour or 4 miles per second, DART caused Dimorphos’ orbital speed to change by a fraction of a percent enough to shift the orbital period by several minutes.  

The event was live streamed with footage from Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO). Seconds after the footage ended, due to impact, scientists and engineers around the world cheered.  

Photo from NASA

“For the first time, humanity has demonstrated the ability to autonomously target and alter the orbit of a celestial object,” states Ralph Semmel, director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where the DART mission was managed.  

The Results

After the impact, the asteroid became brighter within seconds, indicating that the trajectory was altered, therefore, allowing more sunlight to be reflected from its surface. Nearly a minute later, a cloud of ejected material became visible. Astronomers will measure the light curve using ground-based telescopes such as the Hubble and James Webb telescopes. The ESA also plans to launch mission Hera in October of 2024 as a follow-up. 

Although Earth is not under any current threat of an asteroid collision, DART proved what many scientists hypothesized: it’s possible to redirect them. Scientists have yet to find any significant impact threat but continue to use technological advances to identify NEOs. NASA’s Neowise, Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the telescope will be able to detect heat signatures and hunt and detect asteroids and comets.  

The DART mission will forever be a historical moment in our planetary defense. In addition, it marks the first time the James Webb and Hubble telescopes observed the same celestial object. Follow @VALLEYmag to keep up with this news and more.



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