NASA's asteroid-deflection mission is a smashing success, shortens space rock's orbit by a stunning 32 minutes

 

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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captures the debris being trailed by Dimorphos after the collision.  (Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/Hubble)

   Even better than NASA engineers had anticipated, a spacecraft that collided with a minor asteroid two weeks ago has changed the space rock's orbit around its larger companion by a remarkable 32 minutes. The outcomes are excellent news for humanity's planetary defense system's first test.


The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, which was 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth when it collided with the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, disintegrated, and produced a huge cloud of dust. DART struck Dimorphos at a speed of around 23,400 mph (14,540 mph). Dimorphos' orbit was altered by 32 minutes instead of the initial aim of the mission, which was to shift it by at least 73 seconds around its bigger companion, the 1,280-foot-wide (390-meter) asteroid Didymos.


This indicates that the squat, cube-shaped DART spacecraft, which weighed 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms), cost $314 million, and was equipped with sensors, an antenna, an ion thruster, and two 28-foot-long (8.5 m) solar arrays, pushed Dimorphos closer to Didymos and shortened the smaller asteroid's orbital path. The astounding achievement increases the likelihood that a technique like this may be employed in the future to divert a dangerous asteroid away from the Earth.


NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated during a press conference on Tuesday that "this is a watershed moment for planetary security and a watershed moment for civilization" (Oct. 11). "We demonstrated to the world the seriousness with which NASA defends this planet."


DART's onboard Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, which was also in charge of automatically steering the spacecraft towards its crash trajectory, captured and transmitted its last moments.


An image taken from LICIACube shows the plumes of ejecta streaming from the Dimorphos asteroid shortly after the DART impact. (Image credit: ASI/NASA/APL)


 DART's video feed showed the asteroid's environment changing from a single, pale-gray pixel to a rugged, jagged topography scattered with sharp, dark boulders as it approached the space rock. An astronomical "bull's-eye" was struck by DART on the 525-foot-wide (160 m) Dimorphos at a distance of just 56 feet (17 m) from its exact center.


Strong observatories have been monitoring the asteroid since the crash, both from Earth and, in the case of the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, from space. Scientists determined that Dimorphos' orbital period was more than a half hour shorter after the collision by observing when the total amount of sunlight reflected by the pair of asteroids began to dip, signifying that Dimorphos had entered the shadow of the bigger Didymos. Radar instrument follow-up observations confirmed the orbit had changed from 11 hours and 55 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes by directly measuring the same orbit.


During the press briefing, Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said, "Let's all just kind of take a moment to absorb this in." "Humanity has affected a planetary body's orbit around a planetary object for the first time ever."


The Italian Space Agency's Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), a tiny "cubesat" that detached from DART on September 11, has already helped scientists gain a better understanding of the immediate aftermath of the hit closer to the space rock. At a distance of 55 kilometers (34 miles), LICIACube is now circling Dimorphos and has started sending images back to Earth that demonstrate how the asteroid's course changed and how the collision caused debris to blast outward. In the upcoming weeks, further observations from Hubble and the JWST will be added to those from LICIACube.


All of this will make it possible for scientists to construct a picture of the type of force that may be required to stop future asteroids from colliding with our planet and having disastrous effects.


 

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