NASA hit an asteroid with a spacecraft: now what?

(NEXSTAR) – NASA made history last week by becoming the world’s first planetary defense mission to successfully hit an asteroid with an autonomous spacecraft. Although it was an exciting moment, it won’t be the last part of the mission.

The goal of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was to prove that NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) could change the orbit of an asteroid through a kinetic impact.

They used an autonomous spacecraft with an onboard instrument – the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation, or DRACO – which guided it to its target, Dimorphos, using Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation, or Smart Nav.

Dimorphos, a 530-foot moonlet asteroid, orbits the 2,560-foot diameter Didymos asteroid. Although they are both within 7 million miles of Earth, neither poses a threat to our planet. However, their proximity to Earth is important for what comes next for NASA and its partners: observation.

Specifically, researchers expect DART, which hit Dimorphos at about 14,000 mph, will shorten the asteroid’s orbit by about 10 minutes, or 1%. According to NASA, researchers around the world are now using telescopes, both on the ground and in space, to observe the Dimorphos and Didymos.

Two of NASA’s most famous telescopes — the Hubble Space Telescope and the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope — were able to capture DART’s impact with Dimorphos. NASA shared photos taken of the two last week. They can be seen below alongside a view of DART as it reaches its destination.

This combination of images provided by NASA shows three different views of the DART spacecraft’s impact with the asteroid Dimorphos on Monday, September 26, 2022. Left is a forward camera view on DART, top right is the Hubble Space Telescope, and bottom right is the James Webb Space Telescope. (NASA via AP)

Hubble and Webb will continue to observe Dimorphos and Didymos over the next few weeks.

The researchers will also characterize the particles flung into space by DART’s impact, which appear as jets in the Hubble and Webb photos above, and measure how Dimorphos’ orbit changed to determine how effective DART was.

Scientists won’t know the exact change until November.

Then, in four years, NASA says the European Space Agency’s Hera project will study Dimorphos and Didymos. You will focus on the crater left by the mass of DART and Dimorphos. Scientists say it’s possible the crater is 10 to 20 meters tall.

Although more needs to be verified about the effects of DART, experts say it’s a mission accomplished.

“As far as we can tell, our first planetary defense test was a success,” Mission Control’s Elena Adams said at a post-impact press conference to a room-filled applause. “I think earthlings should sleep better. Definitely I will.”

The DART team will now move on to other missions and the PDCO will continue its mission of finding NEOs, warning of their close approach, coordinating an action plan and mitigating any potential impact.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. NASA hit an asteroid with a spacecraft: now what?

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