NASA strikes asteroid with spacecraft

Remember that Bruce Willis movie where he has to fly into space to blow up a huge asteroid before it destroys all life on earth? It was called Armageddon and as much as I love Bruce Willis I really did not like that film at all. That film and a somewhat better version of the same story called Deep Impact which came out at the same time represent a potential disaster that really does concern scientists. If another major asteroid like the one that took out the dinosaurs were heading for earth would we be able to stop it? That’s what NASA’s DART spacecraft was designed to find out.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft is set to impact the tiny asteroid Dimorphos on Monday (Sept. 26) at 7:14 P.M. EDT.

Using algorithms previously used for military missile targeting, DART will impact Dimorphos, which is an orbiting moonlet of the larger asteroid Didymos. (Neither present a threat to Earth.) Dimorphos is about 525 feet (160 m) in diameter, while its parent asteroid is almost a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) wide. The moonlet Dimorphos orbits Didymos every 12 hours.

The plan is that the impact of the 1260-pound (570 kg) probe will cut Dimorphos’ orbital time around Didymos by a few minutes, thus demonstrating that humanity can affect the orbit of a body in space. DART will slam into Dimorphos at a speed of just under 4 miles per second, or 14,400 mph (23,200 km/h).

The DART spacecraft is basically a four foot cube with an engine on the back and a camera on the front. So the scale of this impact won’t be huge. NASA isn’t trying to blow up the asteroid, they just want to see if they could hit it and change its orbit a bit.

That may not sound like much but if you think about it, it’s a pretty big change in approach. All of our previous space missions have been designed to avoid obstacles and land safely for human or robot exploration. With this mission we’re reaching out and trying to change the orbit of another body just to see if it can be done. It’s the difference between exploring our solar system and thinking about ways to take control of it when necessary.

And the test was a success, at least in the sense that it hit the asteroid as intended. The photos of this are pretty amazing. There are lots of sped up versions circulating on Twitter but I recommend just taking 5 minutes to watch this in real time. Even at 14,000 mph it took a long time before you could even see Dimorphos, the intended target. Here’s the last five minutes of the mission in real time:

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