Ten months after rocketing away from the Central Coast, a NASA spacecraft on Monday smashed into an asteroid for a historic mission to test a potential method to protect the planet from a future threat.
The planetary defense mission’s spacecraft has spent the months since launch traveling toward its target in what officials called both a technology demonstration as well as a science experiment with impact aiming, and occurring at 4:15 p.m. Monday.
“This was a really hard technology demonstration to hit a small asteroid we’ve never seen before and do it in such spectacular fashion,” said Nancy Chabot, planetary chief scientist and DART coordination lead at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
In a control room at the Johns Hopkins APL, key milestones leading up to the impact were met with applause and cheers. They exchanged handshakes and hugs after the hit.
“We have impact,” a team member declared.
The asteroid that DART intended to hit actually is a moonlet Dimorphos orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos.
For the DART team and astronomers around the world, the work will begin as they now measure and assess how the impact affected the moonlet’s orbit.
“We’re embarking on a new era of humankind, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourself from something like a dangerous hazardous asteroid impact,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s Planetary Science Division director. “What an amazing thing. We’ve never had that capability before.”
NASA representatives noted the asteroid did not threaten Earth, but they hope to determine if the method could be employed for a future threat.
A message on the NASA broadcast repeatedly assured viewers about the lack of danger.
“DART is a test. There are no known asteroid threats to Earth,” according to a message displayed on the screen periodically.
For the DART team and astronomers around the world, the work will begin as they assess how the impact affected the moonlet’s orbit.
DART’s on-board camera delivered incredibly clear and detailed images as it moved at 14,000 mph toward its target.
“I definitely think that as far as we can tell, our first planetary defense test was a success, and I think we can clap to that,” Elena Adams, mission systems engineer, said during a post-crash briefing. “I think the earthlings should sleep better…The people working here — we’re definitely going to sleep better.”
DART has been likened to a size of a vending machine or golf cart, and its target has been described as the size of a small football stadium.
For the final leg of the trip, DART used its own smart navigation system to aim for its target and change its course.
DART has been envisioned for more than seven years and involved the international community of scientists.
“DART really is just the start,” Chabot said. “It’s just the first planetary defense test mission. It was spectacular …and we’ll figure out how effective it was. That’s really what we’re going to learn in the next weeks to come.”
On Sept. 11, a small satellite separated from DART to capture images of DART’s crash into the asteroid.
Those first images from the Italy Space Agency’s LICIACube (short for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids) craft could arrive some three hours after impact, officials said Monday.
Meanwhile, DART’s bull’s-eye hit made the NASA exoplanet team think about some former Earth residents.
“This one is the for the dinosaurs!” the tweet said with two dinosaur emojis. “And the science! It was definitely the science. And planetary defense!”