(The Hill) – NASA on Tuesday said its historic planetary defense mission was successful after a spacecraft that purposefully smashed into a tiny asteroid called Dimorphos last month altered its orbit by 32 minutes.
At a press conference, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) team explained that before the impact, Dimorphos orbited a larger asteroid called Didymos in 11 hours and 55 minutes. After the strike, astronomers observed the orbital period is now 11 hours and 23 minutes.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that the DART mission captured the attention of the entire world and “felt like a movie plot.”
“But this was not Hollywood,” Nelson said. “We showed the world that NASA is serious as a defender of the planet.”
The DART spacecraft struck Dimorphos, an asteroid that weighs about 5 billion kilograms and is roughly 7 million miles from Earth, on Sept. 26 at more than 14,000 miles per hour.
The spacecraft launched into space in November, so its impact completed a 10-month journey.
DART’s success earned a round of applause from NASA officials and members of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory team, who had worked together on the program for years.
While Dimorphos never posed a threat to Earth, DART served as a key test to deflect a potential future threat to the planet. DART marks the first time humanity has ever hit another object in space with a kinetic strike.
Giorgio Saccoccia, the president of the Italian Space Agency, called in to the NASA conference Tuesday to congratulate the team on its successful and historic mission.
“It’s something that we can really be proud of at the international level,” said Saccocia, whose agency contributed to the project and snapped images of the asteroid.
Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of the Planetary Science Division, said the minimum requirement to change the asteroid’s orbital period was 73 seconds, calling the 32-minute alteration “remarkable.”
“It’s really fascinating stuff, and the learning is going to continue for a long time to come,” she said at the press conference.
Glaze said observations of the impact have poured in across the world from ground-based telescopes.
The James Webb and Hubble space telescopes also captured images, with Webb detailing a stream of material from Dimorphos trailing the asteroid from the center of the impact.
NASA still has work to do, including more observations and analysis of the strike and a model development of Dimorphos.
The European Space Agency has a follow-up mission called Hera, which will launch a spacecraft toward Didymos in 2024. The spacecraft should arrive in 2026 and provide even greater detail about the collision with Dimorphos.
The next priority mission for NASA in the coming decade is to inventory asteroids or other space objects in the solar system that are at least 140 meters in diameter.
Those could pose a threat to Earth, and only about 40 percent of the large space objects are estimated to have been identified.
NASA will also explore a “rapid response” mission that would be able to detect threats faster. A swift reconnaissance would theoretically give the space agency and world leaders enough time to deflect the object.
But for now, Glaze said the world should celebrate the historic planetary defense mission.
“It’s just been so cool. The whole world has been watching this,” Glaze added. “Let’s all just take a moment to soak this in.”