NASA taking a leap to protect the Earth

Hilarija Matuleviciute, Contributing Writer

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made countless headlines after announcing one of its craziest ideas to date – shooting a spacecraft toward a small asteroid. This international collaboration had turned science fiction into another science reality.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) defense system has proved to be an effective technique for protecting Earth from an Earth-bound asteroid or comet if there was ever any threat from one. DART uses a method known as kinetic impact. The kinetic method intentionally deflects the asteroid after an impact. The 1,260-pound (570 kilograms) spacecraft was launched on Nov. 24, 2021, and had a successful launch. It reached its asteroid target, Dimorphos, on Sept. 26 of this year. Dimorphos is a small asteroid about 530 feet (160 meters) in diameter, and it orbits a larger asteroid, Didymos, which is 2,560 feet (780 meters) in diameter. 

DART was originally designed to evaluate how much a spacecraft’s impact can deflect an asteroid. The evaluation was done through a transfer of momentum, as the spacecraft hit the asteroid head-on, which helped slow it down. This planetary defense system has shown that NASA can successfully navigate a spacecraft to intentionally impact with an asteroid, causing it to deflect and slow down. 

The investigation team is now observing Dimorphos to confirm that DART has altered its orbit around Didymos. With worldwide cooperation, a globally located team uses dozens of telescopes to analyze the asteroid system and the test’s results. Throughout the upcoming weeks, they will investigate precise measurements of Dimorphos’s orbital change to determine how effectively the world’s first planetary defense system deflected the asteroid. The outcome of that research can help improve computer models, predict the effectiveness of this technique, and prove if this test can be reliable in the future. NASA would have to alter the spacecraft’s speed to make a more significant difference in the path an asteroid follows. The European Space Agency (ESA) has planned to conduct detailed surveys for both asteroids roughly four years from now, and they will specifically focus on the crater left by DART’s impact. 

On October 11 of this year, NASA declared this launch a success and confirmed that it had shortened Dimorphos’s orbital period by about 32 minutes. Currently, Dimorphos is about 7 million miles from Earth and does not show any threat to Earth. Planetary defense systems are globally unified endeavors that affect Earth and everyone living on it. As NASA continues studying the cosmos and Earth, it continually works to protect our home planet from danger. The redirection test has demonstrated we are not powerless to prevent this natural disaster from happening.