32 minutes that matter! Asteroid's path altered by NASA

The spacecraft NASA deliberately crashed into an asteroid succeeded in nudging the rocky moonlet from its natural path.

| Updated on: Oct 13 2022, 00:00 IST
In Pics: 54-foot Asteroid speeding towards Earth! Clocked at an astounding 66960 kmph
Dinosaurs and asteroid
1/5 Through NASA, now we know how large the asteroid that killed dinosaurs and destroyed the Earth was. (Pixabay)
2/5 Although Earth is bombarded with asteroid flybys all year, none are potentially world-ending asteroids. That could change with a slight deflection in various asteroids' trajectories due to interaction with Earth’s gravitational field which could send them tumbling to Earth. (NASA)
3/5 NASA has warned that another asteroid is on its way towards Earth. The asteroid, named Asteroid 2022 TV, is already on its way towards Earth and will make its closest approach to the planet tomorrow, October 8, at a distance of just 2.4 million kilometers. (Pixabay)
4/5 This 54-foot asteroid is already speeding towards Earth at nearly 66960 kilometers per hour. According to the-sky.org, Asteroid 2022 TV was discovered less than a week ago on October 2. It belongs to the Apollo group of asteroids which are found in the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. The asteroid takes 871 days to orbit the Sun during which its maximum distance from the Sun is 443 million kilometers and minimum distance is 91 million kilometers. (Pixabay)
Asteroid and Earth
5/5 NASA keeps a watch on these asteroids by studying data collected by various telescopes and observatories such as the Pan-STARRS, the Catalina Sky Survey and the NEOWISE telescope. NASA also has a NEO Surveyor mission planned for launch in 2026 to gain even greater in-depth data using a new orbiter. NASA can track the orbital path of the asteroid using this infrared data and can even predict its orbit years into the future. (Pixabay)
View all Images
Asteroid's path altered in NASA's first test of planetary defence system.  (NASA)

The spacecraft NASA deliberately crashed into an asteroid last month succeeded in nudging the rocky moonlet from its natural path into a faster orbit, marking the first time humanity has altered the motion of a celestial body, the U.S. space agency announced on Tuesday.

The $330 million proof-of-concept mission, which was seven years in development, also represented the world's first test of a planetary defense system designed to prevent a potential doomsday meteorite collision with Earth.

Findings of telescope observations unveiled at a NASA news briefing in Washington confirmed the suicide test flight of the DART spacecraft on Sept. 26 achieved its primary objective: changing the direction of an asteroid through sheer kinetic force.

Astronomical measurements over the past two weeks showed the target asteroid was bumped slightly closer to the larger parent asteroid it orbits and that its orbital period was shortened by 32 minutes, NASA scientists said.

"This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and a watershed moment for humanity," NASA chief Bill Nelson told reporters in announcing the results. "It felt like a movie plot, but this was not Hollywood. "

Last month's impact, 6.8 million miles (10.9 million km) from Earth, was monitored in real time from the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, where the spacecraft was designed and built for NASA.

DART's celestial target was an egg-shaped asteroid named Dimorphos, roughly the size of a football stadium, that was orbiting a parent asteroid about five times bigger called Didymos once every 11 hours, 55 minutes.

The test flight concluded with the DART impactor vehicle, no bigger than a refrigerator, slamming directly into Dimorphos at about 14,000 miles per hour (22,531 kph).

Comparison of pre- and post-impact measurements of the Dimorphos-Didymos pair as one eclipses the other shows the orbital period was shortened to 11 hours, 23 minutes, with the smaller object bumped tens of meters closer to its parent.


Tom Statler, DART program scientist for NASA, said the collision also left Dimorphos "wobbling a bit," but additional observations would be necessary to confirm that.

The outcome "demonstrated we are capable of deflecting a potentially hazardous asteroid of this size," if it were discovered well enough in advance, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division. "The key is early detection."

Neither of the two asteroids involved, nor DART itself, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, posed any actual threat to Earth, NASA scientists said.

But Nancy Chabot, DART's coordination lead at APL, said Dimorphos "is a size of asteroid that is a priority for planetary defense."

A Dimorphos-sized asteroid, while not capable of posing a planet-wide threat, could level a major city with a direct hit.

Scientists had predicted the DART impact would shorten Dimorphos' orbital path by at least 10 minutes but would have considered a change as small as 73 seconds a success. So the actual change of more than a half hour, with a margin of uncertainty plus or minus two minutes, exceeded expectations.

The relatively loose composition of rubble that Dimorphos appears to consist of may be a factor in how much the asteroid was budged by DART's blow.

The impact blasted tons of rocky material from the asteroid's surface into space, visible in telescope images as a large debris plume, producing a recoil effect that added to the force exerted on Dimorphos from the collision itself, NASA said.

Launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, DART made most of its voyage under the guidance of flight directors on the ground, with control handed over to the craft's autonomous on-board navigation system in the final hours of the journey.

Dimorphos and Didymos are both tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world's plant and animal species including the dinosaurs.

Smaller asteroids are far more common and present a greater theoretical concern in the near term, making the Didymos pair suitable test subjects for their size, according to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts.

Also, the two asteroids' relative proximity to Earth and dual configuration made them ideal for the DART mission.

The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. Although none are known to pose a foreseeable hazard to humankind, NASA estimates that many more asteroids remain undetected in the near-Earth vicinity.

Follow HT Tech for the latest tech news and reviews , also keep up with us on Twitter, Facebook, Google News, and Instagram. For our latest videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel.

First Published Date: 12 Oct, 23:34 IST
keep up with tech