NASA hit an asteroid in case Earth really needs to knock one away later

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NASA hit an asteroid in case Earth really needs to knock one away later

A NASA spacecraft hurled itself into an asteroid Monday night, and the team of scientists responsible for it couldn’t have been happier.

“It was amazing!” said mission coordination lead Nancy Chabot shortly after impact.

“I’m surprised none of us passed out,” said Elena Adams, the mission’s systems engineer.

About 7:14 p.m., the team at the the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., saw a giant image of the asteroid’s lumpy surface shot from the craft’s onboard camera. One second later … nothing.

That’s when they cheered.

The lack of signal was evidence that the vending machine-sized gizmo that launched last November was obliterated as planned when it smashed into its target.

The team will find out in the coming days and weeks whether the DART craft — the mission’s name is Double Asteroid Redirection Test — accomplished its goal of jostling the asteroid into a (slightly) different orbit for the lofty purpose of defending the planet.

No need to panic: The targeted space rock has no chance of striking Earth, nor does any other known asteroid for at least half a century. The mission tested a technique for redirecting this asteroid as proof of concept in case future Earth folk really need to bat one out of the way.

The basic idea was simple: Hit it with a hammer! But the degree of difficulty was high, in part because NASA was aiming at an asteroid no one had ever seen until about an hour before the collision. It is a moonlet named Dimorphos that is about the size of a football stadium.

Sky watchers operating the world’s highest-powered telescopes detect the moonlet only as a shadow that crosses the larger asteroid it orbits, Didymos, as the two circle the sun together. The pair make up a “double asteroid,” a common arrangement in our solar system.

Here’s how the $330 million DART test worked: