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NASA’s DART Mission Successful, Alters Asteroid’s Path

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On Tuesday, NASA reported that its spacecraft, which deliberately collided with an asteroid last month, achieved its aim of diverting it from its original path into a faster orbit. It is the first time that mankind has changed the path of a celestial object.

This proof-of-concept mission was designed to protect the Earth from an apocalyptic meteorite collision. It became the first planetary defense system to achieve that. The mission cost $330 million.

According to the telescopic findings, the DART spacecraft’s suicide test flight on September 26 accomplished its goal of altering the asteroid’s path with kinetic force, according to a NASA news briefing in Washington.

NASA's DART Mission Impact Changed Asteroid’s Motion in Space
NASA’s DART Mission Impact Changed Asteroid’s Motion in Space

In the past two weeks, NASA scientists said, the astronomical calculations have revealed that the target asteroid was pushed closer to the bigger parent asteroid, which reduced its orbital period by 32 minutes.

DART Mission’s Wobbly impact

NASA Chief Bill Nelson announced the results to the press, saying, “This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and a watershed moment for humanity. It felt like a movie plot, but this was not Hollywood.”

Last month, the spacecraft, built by NASA, took place 6.8 million miles (10.2 km) away from Earth and was monitored in real-time and carried out from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

DART’s target was an egg-shaped asteroid named Dimorphos, as large as a football stadium, orbiting a five-times bigger parent asteroid named Didymos once every 11 hours, 55 minutes. The test suicide flight crashed into Dimorphos at about 14,000 miles (22,531 km) per hour.

Dimorphos Asteroid
DART’s target was an egg-shaped asteroid named Dimorphos, as large as a football stadium

When the orbital period of Dimorpos and Didymos is compared before and after the impact, the orbital period is reduced to 11 hours and 23 minutes, with Dimorpos coming within tens of metres of the larger body.

DART program scientist, Tom Statler, said the impact left Dimorphos “wobbling a bit.” On the outcome, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said “demonstrated we are capable of deflecting a potentially hazardous asteroid of this size. The key is early detection.” Though neither of the asteroids was a threat to Earth.

Nancy Chabot, DART’s coordination leader at APL, said, “Dimorphos is the size of an asteroid that is a priority for planetary defense.” The asteroid was capable enough to hit any major city.

Since the scientists predicted that DART’s impact would reduce Dimorphos’s orbital path by 10 minutes, an alternation of 73 seconds would have been considered successful. But the change of more than a half-hour was beyond expectations.

NASA said, “The impact blasted tons of rocky material from the asteroid’s surface into space, visible in telescope images as a large debris plume, producing a recoil effect that added to the force exerted on Dimorphos from the collision itself.”

DART was hand-controlled on the ground in the final hour of its journey after being launched in a SpaceX rocket in November 2021.

NASA scientists and planetary defense experts consider the Didymos pair as suitable subjects to test on for their size. In addition, the relative proximity and configuration of both asteroids qualified them for the DART mission.

The Dimorphos moonlet is the smallest celestial body to be given a permanent name and is among the 27,500 known asteroids closest to Earth as traced by NASA. Currently, none of these asteroids pose a threat to Earth but NASA believes there are more asteroids yet to be investigated, within Earth’s range.

DART, launched in a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, was hand controlled on the ground via a built-in navigation system at the final hour of its journey.

NASA scientists and planetary defense experts, consider the Didymos pair as suitable subjects to test on for their size. In addition, the relative proximity and configuration of both asteroids qualified them for the DART mission.

The Dimorphos moonlet is the smallest celestial body to be given a permanent name and is among the 27,500 known asteroids closest to Earth as traced by NASA. Currently, none of these asteroids pose a threat to Earth but NASA believes there are more asteroids yet to be investigated, within Earth’s range.

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