NASA claims it has successfully altered the path of an asteroid in a test of planetary defense

Officials from NASA confirmed Tuesday that a spacecraft launched by the agency successfully altered an asteroid’s orbit last month by deliberately smashing into it.

NASA stated that data gathered over the past two weeks showed that the DART probe did alter its trajectory due to an impact with a harmless space rock called Dimorphous.

Because it was the first test of humanity’s ability to protect Earth from potentially destructive asteroids, the cosmic collision is significant.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a statement that “all of us have the responsibility to protect our planet,” “It’s the only one that we have, after all.”

DART (shorthand for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), was a rare opportunity to test a key strategy of planetary defense. It allowed scientists to evaluate whether “nudging”, or changing an asteroid’s orbit. With enough warning, asteroid defense could be a viable option to protect the Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision with a space rock.

Nelson stated that NASA has shown it is serious in its role as a planet defender. He also said that the mission was a “watershed moment” for all aspects of planetary defense, including humanity.

On Sept. 26, the DART probe crashed into Dimorphos which orbits Didymos, a larger asteroid. These two space rocks, which are over 6.5 million miles away from Earth, did not pose a threat to Earth before or after DART.

Before the impact of the spacecraft, Dimorphos took 11 hours and 55 mins to circle Didymos. Astronomers confirmed the DART collision reduced Dimorphos orbit by 32 minutes to 11 hours 23 minutes using ground-based telescopes located on Earth. NASA gives a margin for the uncertainty of approximately plus or minus 2 seconds.

Lori Glaze from NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington said that the discovery is an important step towards understanding the full implications and potential consequences of DART.

Glaze stated in a statement that “astronomers will be better able to assess whether and how a mission such as DART could be used in future to protect Earth from a collision of an asteroid if one is discovered.”

At observatories all over the globe, astronomers continue to study the effects of a cosmic collision. Researchers are particularly interested in measuring the amount of energy and momentum that was transferred between the objects during the collision of the DART spacecraft with Dimorphos at 14,000 miles per hour. NASA officials stated that scientists are also focusing on the numerous tons of debris and rock created by the impact.

In November 2020, the DART spacecraft was launched into space. The European Space Agency will lead a future mission to study the impact crater of the asteroid, and investigate Dimorphos as well as Didymos.

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