NASA’s Planetary Defense Test Crashes Spacecraft Into Asteroid

Illustration of NASA’s DART Spacecraft heading towards its target asteroid | Image Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / STEVE GRIBBEN via BBC News

It is believed that 66 million years ago, a mountain-sized asteroid collided with planet Earth, causing the extinction of dinosaurs, based on the theory of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez.

To ensure that scenario does not happen to the human race, NASA launched the world’s first planetary defense mission, which aims to use kinetic impact to deflect an asteroid.

“This technique, called the ‘kinetic impactor technique’ could be used if there were to be an asteroid that was incoming at some point in the future. It’s a very simple idea: you ram the spacecraft into the object you’re worried about, and you use the mass and the speed of your spacecraft to slightly change the orbit of that object enough so that it would miss the Earth instead of hitting the Earth,” Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory mission lead Dr. Andy Rivkin told BBC News.

After 10 months since it has been launched into space, it looks like NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft was able to successfully execute its mission.

According to NASA, mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, announced the successful impact with its target asteroid Dimorphos at 7:14 p.m. EDT. on Sept. 26.

The mission’s target asteroid, Dimorphos, is 160 meters in diameter, and is within 7 million miles of planet Earth.

NASA’s press release stated that the team will characterize the ejecta produced and precisely measure Dimorphos’ orbital change to determine how effectively DART deflected the asteroid over the coming weeks. 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.

“Planetary Defense 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.”

“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 Defense 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 Defense mission, the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor, a DART successor could provide what we need to save the day,” she added.

-Based on reports by NASA and BBC News

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