In a defensive test, NASA's DART spacecraft collides with an asteroid

In an extraordinary dress rehearsal for the day when a deadly rock threatens Earth, a NASA spacecraft smashed an asteroid at breakneck speed on Monday. The spacecraft dubbed DART collided with a harmless asteroid 7 million miles (11.3 million kilometers) distant, blasting into it at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph). The collision was projected to create a crater, launch streams of boulders and soil into space, and, most critically, modify the asteroid's orbit.


"We have impact!" Elena Adams, from Mission Control, exclaimed, bouncing up and down and flinging her arms upward.


To capture the sight, telescopes across the world and in space were directed at the same spot in the sky. Though the hit was obvious radio DART's communication quickly stopped—it may take many months to establish how much the asteroid's route was altered.


The $325 million effort was the first attempt to move an asteroid or other natural object in space.


As far as we can determine, our first planetary defense test was a success, according to Adams. I believe Earthlings should sleep more soundly. Without a doubt, I will.


NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted earlier in the day, "No, this is not a movie plot." "We've all seen it in movies like 'Armageddon,' but the real-life stakes are high," he continued in a pre-recorded video.


Monday's target is Dimorphos, a 525-foot (160-meter) asteroid. It's a moonlet of Didymos, Greek meaning twin, a five-times-larger asteroid that hurled off the debris that created the junior companion. The duo has been orbiting the sun for ages without harming Earth, making them excellent candidates for save-the-world tests. The DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, was launched in November and steered to its target using novel technologies created by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft manufacturer and mission manager.

DART's onboard camera, a critical component of its smart navigation system, detected Dimorphos less than an hour before impact. "Woo hoo!" screamed Adams, a Johns Hopkins mission systems engineer. Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland, watched with mounting excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger and larger in the field of vision alongside its larger companion, with a picture flashing back to Earth every second. Dimorphos appeared alone in the photos within minutes; it resembled a large gray lemon, but with stones and rubble on the surface. As the radio transmission concluded, the last image on the screen froze.


Flight controllers clapped, embraced, and shared high fives. The DART crew celebrated immediately once their task was completed. The spacecraft's death was met with little sadness.


According to NASA program scientist Tom Statler, losing a signal from a spacecraft is usually a bad thing. However, it was the ideal conclusion in this situation.


Carolyn Ernst of Johns Hopkins University said the spacecraft was clearly "kaput," with remains likely in the new crater or cascading into space with the asteroid's expelled debris. Scientists were adamant that DART would not fracture Dimorphos. In comparison to the asteroid's 11 billion pounds, the spacecraft weighed just 1,260 pounds (570 kilograms) (5 billion kilograms). However, that should be enough to reduce its 11-hour, 55-minute orbit around Didymos. The impact should cut that time by ten minutes. Scientists remarked that the expected orbital change of 1% may not appear to be significant. However, they emphasized that it would be a big adjustment over time.


According to Lori Glaze, head of NASA's planetary science division, "the science begins now." Now we'll see how effective we were in real life.


Given ample warning time, planetary security specialists favor pushing a threatening asteroid or comet out of the way rather than blowing it up and producing many bits that may rain down on Earth. For large space rocks, many impactors or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, which are yet-to-be-invented machines that use their own gravity to drive an asteroid into a safer orbit, may be required.


The dinosaurs didn't have a space program to warn them about what was coming, but we have, according to NASA's senior climate adviser Katherine Calvin, alluding to the 66 million-year-old global extinction thought to have been triggered by a huge asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions, or both.


Since its inception by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago, the non-profit B612 Foundation has advocated for impact tests like DART to defend Earth against asteroid attacks. Aside from Monday's accomplishment, the world has to do a better job of finding the numerous space rocks lying out there, cautioned the foundation's executive director, former astronaut Ed Lu.


According to NASA, less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects in the lethal 460-foot (140-meter) range have been identified. And just a fraction of the millions of smaller asteroids capable of causing extensive damage is known.


The National Science Foundation and the US Energy Department's Vera Rubin Observatory, which is approaching completion in Chile, promise to transform the field of asteroid finding, according to Lu. Finding and tracking asteroids is still the name of the game in this game. That is what must occur in order to safeguard the Earth.


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