A NASA spacecraft rammed an asteroid at blistering speed Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock menaces Earth.
The galactic slam occurred at a harmless asteroid 7 million miles (11.3 million kilometers) away, with the spacecraft named DART plowing into the space rock at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph). Scientists expected the impact to carve out a crater, hurl streams of rocks and dirt into space and, most importantly, alter the asteroid’s orbit.
“We have impact!” Mission Control’s Elena Adams announced, jumping up and down and thrusting her arms skyward.
Telescopes around the world and in space aimed at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. Though the impact was immediately obvious—DART’s radio signal abruptly ceased—it will take as long as a couple of months to determine how much the asteroid’s path was changed.
The $325 million mission was the first attempt to shift the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.
“As far as we can tell, our first planetary defense test was a success,” Adams later told a news conference, the room filling with applause. “I think Earthlings should sleep better. Definitely, I will.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reminded people earlier in the day via Twitter that, “No, this is not a movie plot.” He added in a prerecorded video: “We’ve all seen it on movies like “Armageddon,” but the real-life stakes are high.”
Monday’s target: a 525-foot (160-meter) asteroid named Dimorphos. It’s a moonlet of Didymos, Greek for twin, a fast-spinning asteroid five times bigger that flung off the material that formed the junior partner.
The pair have been orbiting the sun for eons without threatening Earth, making them ideal save-the-world test candidates.
Launched last November, the vending machine-size DART—short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test—navigated to its target using new technology developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft builder and mission manager.
The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Energy Department, promises to revolutionize the field of asteroid discovery, Lu noted.
Finding and tracking asteroids, “That’s still the name of the game here. That’s the thing that has to happen in order to protect the Earth,” he said.