Test & Measurement

NASA successfully hits asteroid at 14,000mph in planetary defence test

27th September 2022
Paige West

After 10 months flying in space, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – the world’s first planetary defence technology demonstration – successfully impacted its asteroid target on Monday, the agency’s first attempt to move an asteroid in space.

Mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, announced the successful impact at 7:14pm EDT.

As a part of NASA’s overall planetary defence strategy, DART’s impact with the asteroid Dimorphos demonstrates a viable mitigation technique for protecting the planet from an Earth-bound asteroid or comet, if one were discovered.

“At its core, DART represents an unprecedented success for planetary defence, but it is also a mission of unity with a real benefit for all humanity,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “As NASA studies the cosmos and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this international collaboration turned science fiction into science fact, demonstrating one way to protect Earth.”

DART targeted the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, a small body just 530 feet (160 metres) in diameter. It orbits a larger, 2,560-foot (780 metre) asteroid called Didymos. Neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth.

The mission’s one-way trip confirmed NASA can successfully navigate a spacecraft to intentionally collide with an asteroid to deflect it, a technique known as kinetic impact.

The investigation team will now observe Dimorphos using ground-based telescopes to confirm that DART’s impact altered the asteroid’s orbit around Didymos. Researchers expect the impact to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1%, or roughly 10 minutes; precisely measuring how much the asteroid was deflected is one of the primary purposes of the full-scale test.

“Planetary Defence is a globally unifying effort that affects everyone living on Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now we know we can aim a spacecraft with the precision needed to impact even a small body in space. Just a small change in its speed is all we need to make a significant difference in the path an asteroid travels.”

The spacecraft’s sole instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO), together with a sophisticated guidance, navigation and control system that works in tandem with Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation (SMART Nav) algorithms, enabled DART to identify and distinguish between the two asteroids, targeting the smaller body.

The final five-and-a-half minutes of images leading up to the DART spacecraft’s intentional collision with asteroid Dimorphos. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

These systems guided the 1,260-pound (570-kilogram) box-shaped spacecraft through the final 56,000 miles (90,000 kilometres) of space into Dimorphos, intentionally crashing into it at roughly 14,000mph (22,530 kilometres) to slightly slow the asteroid’s orbital speed. DRACO’s final images, obtained by the spacecraft seconds before impact, revealed the surface of Dimorphos in close-up detail.

Fifteen days before impact, DART’s CubeSat companion Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), provided by the Italian Space Agency, deployed from the spacecraft to capture images of DART’s impact and of the asteroid’s resulting cloud of ejected matter. In tandem with the images returned by DRACO, LICIACube’s images are intended to provide a view of the collision’s effects to help researchers better characterize the effectiveness of kinetic impact in deflecting an asteroid. Because LICIACube doesn’t carry a large antenna, images will be downlinked to Earth one by one in the coming weeks.

“DART’s success provides a significant addition to the essential toolbox we must have to protect Earth from a devastating impact by an asteroid,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defence Officer. “This demonstrates we are no longer powerless to prevent this type of natural disaster. Coupled with enhanced capabilities to accelerate finding the remaining hazardous asteroid population by our next Planetary Defence mission, the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, a DART successor could provide what we need to save the day.”

With the asteroid pair within seven million miles (11 million kilometres) of Earth, a global team is using dozens of telescopes stationed around the world and in space to observe the asteroid system. Over the coming weeks, they will characterize the ejecta produced and precisely measure Dimorphos’ orbital change to determine how effectively DART deflected the asteroid. The results will help validate and improve scientific computer models critical to predicting the effectiveness of this technique as a reliable method for asteroid deflection.

“This first-of-its-kind mission required incredible preparation and precision, and the team exceeded expectations on all counts,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “Beyond the truly exciting success of the technology demonstration, capabilities based on DART could one day be used to change the course of an asteroid to protect our planet and preserve life on Earth as we know it.”

Roughly four years from now, the European Space Agency’s Hera project will conduct detailed surveys of both Dimorphos and Didymos, with a particular focus on the crater left by DART’s collision and a precise measurement of Dimorphos’ mass.

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