CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A spacecraft that had plowed into a small, harmless asteroid millions of kilometers away managed to shift its orbit, NASA said on Tuesday while announcing the results of its Save-the-World test.
The space agency attempted the test two weeks ago to see if a killer rock could be pushed out of Earth’s path in the future.
“This mission shows that NASA is trying to be prepared for whatever the universe throws at us,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a briefing at the space agency’s headquarters in Washington.
The Dart spacecraft has carved a crater in the asteroid Dimorphos hurled debris into space on September 26, leaving a comet-like trail of dust and debris in its wake extends for several thousand miles (kilometers). It took consecutive nights of telescopic observations from Chile and South Africa to determine just how much the impact altered the 160-meter (525-foot) asteroid’s orbit around its companion, a much larger space rock.
Before the impact, the moon took 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit its parent asteroid. Scientists had expected a 10-minute saving, but Nelson said the impact shortened the asteroid’s orbit by 32 minutes.
“Let’s all take a moment to absorb this… for the first time ever, mankind has altered the orbit of a celestial body,” noted Lori Glaze, NASA director of planetary science.
Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, co-founder of the nonprofit B612 Foundation dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, said he was “clearly pleased, no question” about the results and the attention the asteroid deflection mission has brought.
The team’s scientists said the amount of debris appeared to have played a role in the outcome. The impact may also have caused Dimorphos to wobble a bit, said NASA program scientist Tom Statler. That may affect the orbit, but it will never return to its original position, he noted.
The two bodies were originally less than a mile (1.2 kilometers) apart. Now they are ten yards (meters) closer.
None of the asteroids posed a threat to Earth — and still don’t as they continue their journey around the sun. For this reason, scientists have chosen the couple for this important dress rehearsal.
Planetary defense experts prefer to shove a menacing asteroid or comet out of the way years or even decades in advance, rather than blowing it up and creating multiple bits that could rain down on Earth.
“We really need that advance warning as well for a technique like this to be effective,” said mission director Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft and managed the $325 million mission.
“You need to know they’re coming,” Glaze added.
Launched last year, the machine-sized darts – short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test – was destroyed when it hit the asteroid 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) away at 22,500 km/h.
“This is a tremendous achievement, not only for taking the first step in potentially protecting us from future asteroid impacts,” but also for the amount of imagery and data collected internationally, said Daniel Brown, astronomer at the Nottingham Trent University in England, said via email.
Brown also said it’s “particularly exciting” that the debris tail can be seen by amateur skygazers with medium-sized telescopes.
The team’s scientists warned that more work is needed to not only identify more of the myriad space rocks out there, but also to determine their composition — some are solid while others are piles of debris. For example, scouting missions might be required before impactors are launched to deflect orbits.
“We shouldn’t be too eager to say that a test on one asteroid will tell us exactly how any other asteroid would behave in a similar situation,” Statler said.
Nevertheless, he and others are happy about this first attempt.
“We’ve been imagining this for years and to finally have it come true is really quite a thrill,” he said.
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