NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, better known as DART, did something that’s never been done on Monday, Sept. 26: purposely crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid — Dimorphos, a small moonlet orbiting a larger asteroid by the name of Didymos.
Seven million miles away, back here on earth, in La Cañada Flintridge, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers and scientists were smiling in the wake of humanity’s momentous first test run at planetary defense.
No doubt, it was clear that Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed and leads the DART mission for NASA. But like many undertakings in space, the mission required expertise from various NASA centers such as JPL.
JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, an element of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, was tasked with determining the location of Didymos in space within 16 miles of its exact location, while also estimating when Dimorphos would be visible – and accessible – from DART’s direction of approach.
A hard ask considering the asteroid is moving more than twice as fast as a car on the freeway and scientists knew little about the composition of Dimorphos, NASA leaders explained in a livestream on Monday.
“We don’t even know what it looks like,” said Tahira Allen with NASA communication, noting the mission marked the first time humanity will have moved a planetary body in the universe.
The spacecraft used autonomous navigation technology to make small maneuvers to ensure it was lined up with its target throughout the mission. It covered the last four miles of its journey in just one second.
The asteroid, which was located 6.8 million miles away from Earth, posed no threat to the planet before impact around 4:15 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26. But NASA officials expect that the technology tested in the mission will be used to one day defend the planet against potential asteroid or comet hazards in the future.
Those who participated in the first-of-its-kind mission eagerly exchanged high-fives and cheers after watching their million-dollar rocket crash into the rocky asteroid, which marked a new era of humankind, according to officials hosting the livestream.
Scientists weren’t sure how the impact would affect the asteroid heading into Monday’s mission but they believed the impact would shorten the moonlet’s orbital period around the larger asteroid by several minutes.
“That duration should be long enough for the effects to be observed and measured by telescopes on Earth,” officials wrote last week prior to the mission. “It should also be enough for this test to demonstrate whether kinetic impact technology – impacting an asteroid to adjust its speed and therefore its path – could in fact protect Earth from an asteroid strike.”
Along with investigators at other institutions, JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies will study the plume of rock and regolith — broken rock and dust — ejected by the impact, as well as the newly formed impact crater and the movement of Dimorphos in its orbit around its parent asteroid.
“Strategic partnerships like ours with APL are the lifeblood of cutting-edge space mission development,” said Laurie Leshin, director of JPL. “Our history of working with APL goes all the way back to Voyager and extends well into the future, with missions like Europa Clipper. The work we do together makes us all – and our missions – better. We’re proud to support the DART mission and team.”
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