New data from the NASA DART mission confirms Earth’s asteroid-deflecting capabilities

Why this is important: After the successful impact of NASA’s spacecraft on Dimorphos, researchers are still analyzing the data to find new insights into the after-effect. Newly published studies confirm how (and why) the asteroid’s orbit changed more than earlier calculations expected.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission was our first attempt to deflect a celestial object by launching and crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid, and that mission was a resounding success. The orbit of a small asteroid called Dimorphos was changed more than expected, and now scientists have found the reasons by studying the trove of data collected during the experiment.

Dimorphos orbits a larger object called Didymos, and poses no threat to Earth. Some asteroids or comets may pose a threat to our planet, however, so a mission like DART can provide the scientific community with all the data needed to prepare an effective “planetary defense strategy.” ” based on deviation effects.

The collision of the DART spacecraft with the surface of Dimorphos shortened the orbit of the asteroid by 33 minutes, since the asteroid now orbits Didymos in less than 11 and a half hours. Four new studies on the effect are published in the March issue of NATURE magazine, which highlights how much the volume and physical properties of the ejecta (the debris thrown out from the impacts) helped achieve this higher than expected result.

The recoil and ejecta produced by the impact greatly contributed to Dimorphos’ altered orbit, a paper said. The second paper estimates that the material ejected from the surface of the asteroid contributes to the change in momentum of the object between 2.2 and 4.9. Another paper highlights how the ejected material forms a comet-like tail behind Dimorphos, making the object a so-called “active” asteroid.

According to Tony Farnham, Principal Research Scientist at the University of Maryland (UMD), the new papers are just “the first results about the DART mission to be published,” and more studies are still ongoing. Scientists need to further understand DART’s “impact and implications” from a planetary defense perspective, as they uncover “more interesting events” about the mission.

Derek Richardson, a professor of astronomy at UMD and a DART investigation working group lead, said that while we still can’t prevent hurricanes or earthquakes, we ultimately learn that “with enough time, warning and resources ” we can definitely prevent the impact of the asteroid. . A relatively small change in the asteroid’s orbit is enough, the DART mission confirmed, to prevent “massive destruction from occurring to our planet.”

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