Cape Canaveral, Fla. — A NASA spacecraft slammed into an asteroid at breakneck speed Monday, in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a deadly rock threatens Earth. .
The galactic slam took place on a harmless asteroid 7 million miles away, when a spacecraft named Dart crashed into the space rock at 14,000 mph. Scientists expect the impact to create a crater, throw a stream of rock and mud into space and, most importantly, change the asteroid’s orbit.
“We have influence!” Mission Control’s Elena Adams announced, jumping up and down, arms outstretched into the sky.
Telescopes around the world and in space aim at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. While the impact was obvious — Dart’s radio signal suddenly stopped — it would be days, if not weeks, before determining how much the asteroid’s path had changed.
The $325 million mission is the first attempt to change the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.
“We’re starting a new era for humanity,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
Earlier in the day, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reminded people via Twitter, “No, this is not a movie plot.” He added in a pre-recorded video: “We’ve all seen it in a movie like Armageddon. It, but the stakes in real life are high.”
Monday’s target: A 525-foot asteroid called Dimorphos. It’s actually a satellite of Didymos, the Greek word for twin, a fast-spinning asteroid five times larger that ditched the material that formed its buddies.
The pair have orbited the sun for hundreds of millions of years without threatening Earth, making them ideal candidates for the world-saving test.
The vending machine-sized dart — short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — launched last November to navigate to its target using new technology developed by spacecraft manufacturer and mission manager Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
Dart’s onboard cameras, a key part of this smart navigation system, saw Dimorphos an hour before impact.
“Wow,” exclaimed Adams, a mission systems engineer at Johns Hopkins University. “We saw Dimorphos and it was fantastic, fantastic.”
As an image came back to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland watched with increasing excitement as Dimorphos grew larger in view and appeared alongside its larger companions . Within minutes, Demovers was alone in the photo. It looks like a giant grey lemon but has boulders and rubble on the surface. When the radio transmission ended, the last image on the screen froze.
The flight controllers cheered, hugged each other and gave each other high fives.
A few minutes later, a small satellite followed and took pictures of the impact. The Italian Cubesat was released from Dart two weeks ago.
Scientists insist Dart won’t crush Dimorphos. The spacecraft weighs just 1,260 pounds, compared to the asteroid’s 11 billion pounds. But that should be enough to narrow its 11-hour, 55-minute orbit around Didymos.
The impact should be about 10 minutes after this, but it will take a few days to nearly a month for the telescope to verify the new orbit. The scientists noted that the expected 1 percent orbital shift might not sound like much. But they stress that this will bring about major changes over the years.
Planetary defense experts prefer to push a threatening asteroid or comet out of the way with enough preparation time, rather than blow it up and create multiple fragments that could rain down on Earth. Large space rocks may require multiple impactors, or a combination of impactors and so-called gravitational tractors, yet-to-be-invented devices that use their own gravity to pull asteroids into safer orbits.
“The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them understand what was coming, but we did,” said Kathryn Calvin, NASA’s senior climate adviser, referring to the mass extinction thought to have been caused by an asteroid impact 66 million years ago. , volcanic eruptions or both.
The nonprofit B612 Foundation, which works to protect Earth from asteroid impacts, has been promoting impact tests like Dart’s since it was founded by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Beyond Monday’s feat, the world must better identify the myriad space rocks lurking out there, warns Ed Lu, the foundation’s executive director and former astronaut.
Far less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects found within a deadly 460-foot range, according to NASA. Of the millions of small asteroids capable of causing widespread damage, less than 1% are known.
Lu noted that the Villa Rubin Observatory, which is about to be completed in Chile by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, promises to revolutionize the field of asteroid discovery.
Finding and tracking asteroids, “that’s still the name of the game. That’s what has to happen in order to protect the planet,” he said.