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Watch Moment NASA’s Dart Spacecraft Crashes Into Asteroid

  • Dart mission final moment
    The Dart mission in its final moments. Credit: Video screenshot

The Dart probe, operated by NASA, collided with an asteroid and self-destructed as a result. The purpose of the collision was to see if space objects that could endanger Earth could be safely pushed aside.

Right up until it collided with the target, a 160-meter-wide object known as Dimorphos, Dart’s camera was snapping an image every second.

The field of vision on Dart’s camera briefly filled with Dimorphos before becoming blank, to the delight of controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU-APL). According to preliminary estimations, the impact was only 17 meters off the precise center of Dimorphos.

The NASA-led mission’s scientists won’t know for sure for a few weeks still whether their experiment was successful, but Dr. Lori Glaze, the director of planetary science, was confident that something amazing had been accomplished.

She told the press that “we’re embarking on a new era of humankind, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous hazardous asteroid impact. What an amazing thing; we’ve never had that capability before.”

Additionally, mission systems engineer Dr. Elena Adams of JHU-APL noted “earthlings should sleep better” knowing they have a planetary defense solution.

By observing changes in Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, another asteroid, scientists will be able to evaluate if efforts have been successful or not. The two-rock, or binary, system will be precisely measured by telescopes on Earth.

Dimorphos circled its 780-meter-wide buddy for around 11 hours and 55 minutes prior to the crash. Certainly, everything seemed to proceed according to plan based on the images sent back from eleven million kilometers away from Earth.

Dart Had to First Discern Between the Smaller and Larger Rock

Dart had to first discern between the smaller and larger rock while traveling at a relative speed of 22,000 kilometers per hour. To assure a collision, onboard navigational algorithms modified the closing course using thruster firings.

Even for a brief moment, the two asteroids’ distinct forms captivated scientists. Didymos has a diamond form, and, on its surface, there were numerous smooth spots and boulders.

The instrument scientist for Dart’s camera system, Dr. Carolyn Ernst, expressed her excitement at seeing Dimorphos: “It looks adorable; it’s this little moon, [and] it’s so cute. It looks in a lot of ways like some of the other small asteroids we’ve seen, and they are also covered in boulders. So we suspect it is likely to be a rubble pile, kind of loosely consolidated.”

Didymos and Dimorphos were chosen with care. Before the demonstration, neither was on a route that would have brought them into contact with Earth, and a minor change in their orbital relationship would not have increased the risk. On the other hand, there are rocks that do have the potential to be dangerous to humans.

More than 95 percent of the large asteroids that could cause a global extinction if they collided with Earth have been identified through sky surveys. Thankfully, however, according to calculations, these won’t be approaching our planet, but there are still many smaller objects that have gone undetected that could cause trouble even on a local or city scale.

Dart’s image feed may have abruptly ceased at impact, but we should still receive more images from a spacecraft that was observing. Three minutes after the primary probe, a small Italian CubeSat, a miniaturized satellite, followed, taking pictures at a safe distance of 50 kilometers.

Over the next few days, data from the LiciaCube will be transmitted back to Earth. It should have detected the debris plume Dart had dug out.

The three spacecrafts that comprise the Hera project will be stationed in Didymos and Dimorphos by the European Space Agency (ESA) in four years to conduct follow-up research.

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