A Nasa mission to hit an asteroid with a spacecraft — intending to knock the object off course and find a way of protecting Earth from disaster — has proven surprisingly successful, scientists said on Wednesday.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was conducted on September 26, with the impact being captured by the Hubble telescope.
“All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” said Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson at the time of the impact.
“This mission shows that Nasa is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us,” he said.
But it is only now, five months later, that scientists have the results of the test: the asteroid’s trajectory has been altered, after being hit with the 544kg spacecraft that was travelling over 20,000kph.
The orbital period of the Dimorphos asteroid — which never posed a threat to Earth — was changed by 33 minutes, Nasa said, leading to hopes that in future, DART or a similar project could protect us from deadly projectiles capable of destroying entire cities or wiping out all life on the planet.
“I cheered when DART slammed head on into the asteroid for the world’s first planetary defence technology demonstration, and that was just the start,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa headquarters in Washington.
“These findings add to our fundamental understanding of asteroids and build a foundation for how humanity can defend Earth from a potentially hazardous asteroid by altering its course."
Google celebrated the success of DART by launching a search engine Easter Egg — an inside joke or cultural reference displayed on Google following a search prompt — that shows an asteroid crashing when a user searched "Nasa DART".