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NASA crashes spacecraft into asteroid, passing planetary defense test

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Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2022. 8:20 am CST.

Photo courtesy: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

By Aaron Humes: On Monday evening, a NASA spacecraft intentionally slammed into an asteroid, beginning a historic test of humanity’s ability to protect Earth from a potentially catastrophic collision with a space rock, NBC News reports.

The agency’s DART probe, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, costing $325 million, is intended to try to alter the trajectory of a small and harmless space rock known as Dimorphos, which is about 6.8 million miles from Earth.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the DART team, saying efforts by the international group of scientists will help humanity protect Earth from incoming asteroids.

“We are showing that planetary defense is a global endeavor and it is very possible to save our planet,” Nelson said.

It may take up to several weeks for NASA to confirm any changes in the space rock’s trajectory. The goal is to shorten the asteroid’s nearly 12-hour orbit by several minutes.

In a real-life planetary defense situation, even a small change in an asteroid’s trajectory — provided it is still far enough — could avert a doomsday impact.

Dimorphos, which measures 525 feet wide, orbits a much larger, 2,500-foot asteroid named Didymos. Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose threats to Earth, according to NASA.

The DART spacecraft launched into space in November and spent 10 months journeying to its asteroid target.

The probe was not expected to survive the crash. In the days and weeks ahead, ground-based telescopes will be used to study Dimorphos and time its orbit. A mission led by the European Space Agency, scheduled to launch in 2024, will study the impact crater on the asteroid and examine Dimorphos and Didymos in greater detail.

NASA hopes the DART crash will take up to 10 minutes off Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos. Over time, that relatively small change is expected to grow. If it is successful, it would demonstrate the effectiveness of carrying out such a maneuver when a potentially hazardous asteroid is millions of miles away.

Although the prospect of “killer asteroids” may sound far-fetched, the threat is all too real, said Bruce Betts, the chief scientist at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that conducts research, advocacy and outreach to promote space exploration.

The best-known example of a cataclysmic impact occurred around 66 million years ago, when the Chicxulub asteroid, thought to have been 6 to 10 miles wide, slammed into Earth and triggered a sudden mass extinction. The incident annihilated the dinosaurs and killed almost three-quarters of all the plant and animal species that were living on Earth at the time.

The largest asteroid impact in recorded history took place 114 years ago, when a space rock exploded over a remote part of Siberia in 1908. The incident, which came to be known as the “Tunguska explosion,” flattened trees over 500,000 acres of uninhabited forest, according to NASA. Mysteries about the Tunguska incident remain, but scientists have said the impact was most likely caused by a space rock measuring 164 to 262 feet across.

 

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