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:
Why just bump it instead of blowing it apart, “Armageddon”-style? Because exploding a pile of ancient rock — especially one that may contain metal or giant boulders, as many asteroids do — would be messy and unpredictable, Chabot said before last year’s launch. The deflection method assumes we will have time for a bit of finesse: A small nudge now could ensure that an asteroid sails well wide of Earth many years down the road.
“You don’t want, necessarily, to make this more complicated than it has to be, right? You would do this well ahead of time, like decades — 10, 20, 30 years ahead,” she said. “Small changes add up to big changes in that amount of time.”
The asteroids in our neighborhood
Thousands of asteroids are large enough and come close enough to Earth’s orbit that researchers need to keep an eye on them.
No known asteroid large enough to cause damage on the ground has any significant chance of reaching our planet in the next 50 years, according to Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. His team catalogues and tracks asteroids and comets whose orbits bring them into Earth’s general neighborhood, defined as within 121 million miles of the sun.
Most of these known asteroids were identified by ground-based optical telescopes, and some were located by an infrared space telescope named NEOWISE that detected their heat signatures from its perch in low Earth orbit.
Almost two-thirds of those are so small that they would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere if they came our way. But, of course, some asteroids are huge and dangerous — just ask any dinosaur.
Chodas said scientists have discovered 95 percent of near-Earth asteroids that are large enough to create global catastrophe, meaning a kilometer (about six-tenths of a mile) or wider. The largest is about four miles across, much smaller than the six-mile behemoth that wiped out the dinosaurs.
The unknown ones are the wild cards.
Asteroids that are just a bit smaller but still large enough do a lot of regional damage are tougher to detect with current technology. Models estimate that we have found just 40 percent of those that are 460 feet wide (140 meters) and larger, such as Didymos and its moonlet. That is well below NASA’s goal of identifying at least 90 percent.
“Some asteroids are sneaky, and they have orbits that make an asteroid very hard to find,” Chodas said.
Some may be in orbits that don’t often bring them close to Earth. Some are made of dark material that doesn’t reflect much light, making it difficult for ground-based telescopes to detect them. Others may lurk on the opposite side of the sun.
The truck-size rock that caused a fireball and shock wave over Russia in 2013 arrived with no warning because it came from the direction of the sun, a huge blind spot for existing telescopes.
Fortunately, more high-powered eyes are on the way.
In 2026, NASA plans to launch a very sensitive infrared telescope called NEO Surveyor, which will have a wide view of the skies from a stable vantage point about a million miles up between the Earth and the sun. Like its predecessor NEOWISE, it will detect heat signatures rather than visible light.
Amy Mainzer, principal investigator on the Surveyor team, said it should be able to spot a 460-foot asteroid from at least 50 million miles away.
Around the same time, a new ground telescope in Chile is expected to become operational with a massive 28-foot mirror that will be able to detect objects that are much fainter and farther away than any current ground telescope.
“The two together will get us to 90 percent very quickly,” Chodas said.
Why NASA picked this asteroid
The moonlet Dimorphos seemed to be an ideal target because of its ordinary composition and extraordinary location close enough — but not too close — to Earth.
It is probably chondrite, Chabot said, a common type of asteroid made of rock and metal rubble left over from when planets were formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the size of something people would definitely want to redirect if it were headed toward Earth.
About a sixth of all near-Earth asteroids are linked by gravity in pairs or small groups the way Dimorphos is linked to Didymos. That is how we knew the moonlet existed: Ground-based telescopes detected the regular dimming and brightening of Didymos as the moonlet passed in front of it and behind it every 11 hours and 55 minutes.
Ideally now, the orbit is a bit shorter.
The spacecraft’s head-on collision was expected to slow the moonlet enough that Didymos’s gravity will pull it a bit closer, speeding up its orbit. The plume of rock and debris that flew out of the crater on impact may provide an extra push as well.
The contact occurred about 7 million miles from Earth, roughly 28 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. That’s close enough for high-speed data transmission and for telescopes on the ground to detect a change in the moonlet’s orbit, but it’s far enough away that the whole endeavor presented a significant technological challenge.
The tech that was tested
The DART spacecraft carried quite a bit of sophisticated equipment, including some that NASA was testing for future missions.
What’s next? We’ll see.
In 2024, the European Space Agency will launch a spacecraft named Hera to visit Dimorphos and investigate the crater that was left by DART. What it discovers will help planetary defense experts figure out how the deflection technique can be refined, and perhaps they will gain some insight into what other methods might work as well.
Future techniques might include using gravity to tug asteroids out of orbit, zapping them with lasers, or even moving them with tractor beams, said NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson before DART launched last year.
“This,” he said, “is just a start.”
About this story
Most information and visual reference material for the DART mission and its equipment came from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. NEOWISE and Surveyor information came from Amy Mainzer of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Information on near-Earth asteroids came from CNEOS.
Go to Publisher: Technology
Author: Bonnie Berkowitz