NASA completes ‘planetary defense’ test


The US space agency is now waiting to see if it was able to knock an incoming asteroid off course

NASA has its very first “planetary defense” test, in which a spacecraft is deliberately crashed into an asteroid orbiting millions of miles from Earth in an attempt to alter its path. The agency said it made a direct hit, but is still waiting for data from the experiment.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collided with the asteroid Dimorphos on Monday, colliding with the 11 billion-pound, 520-foot object traveling at about 14,000 miles per hour. NASA said the craft missed the center of the asteroid by just 55 feet, with the moment of impact being videotaped by a camera mounted on the craft.

“It is a successful completion of the first part of the world’s first planetary defense test. Years of hard work and a lot of innovation and creativity have gone into this mission.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson saidadding “I believe it will teach us how one day we can protect our own planet from an incoming asteroid.”

While the space agency was able to confirm the impact, it could be up to “a few months” before the full effects of the experiment are known, NASA mission systems engineer Elena Adams told reporters, although she noted that some data will be available in a few days.

The mission was not intended to destroy the asteroid, which poses no threat to Earth, but rather to alter its course. Dimorphos orbits another asteroid called Didymos, and researchers will record the results of the collision by observing the altered orbits of both objects.

If it’s reached fast enough, changing an asteroid’s course by just 1% could be enough to avoid a deadly collision if one is headed for Earth, according to NASA, which says there are some 30,000 known near-Earth objects in the Solar System. While most of them are less than 100 meters in diameter, about a third is almost the size of Dimorphos at 170 meters, or about the size of a football stadium.

NASA doesn’t believe that asteroids of that size will hit Earth in the next century, but researchers regularly discover new objects flying through space. In May, scientists from a California-based company identified more than 100 previously unknown asteroids, leaving it unknown how many undetected rocks could pose a threat to Earth.

The DART craft was launched last November in collaboration with international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and cost about $325 million. The collider was somewhat sparsely equipped, bringing only sensors for navigation and an aperture camera called DRACO, which captured Monday’s impact on film.

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