NASA successfully shifted an asteroid’s orbit


NASA recently crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid in an attempt to push the rocky traveler off its trajectory. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test – or DART – was meant to test one potential strategy for preventing an asteroid from colliding with Earth. 

The collision occurred on Sept. 27, 2022, and on Oct. 11, 2022, NASA announced that the mission had successfully changed the orbit of the asteroid Dimorphos. 

David Barnhart is a professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California and director of the Space Engineering Research Center there. He watched NASA’s live stream of the successful mission and explains what happened.

What was supposed to happen?

The point of the DART mission was to test whether it is possible to deflect an asteroid with a kinetic impact – by crashing something into it. NASA used the analogy of a golf cart hitting the side of an Egyptian pyramid to convey the relative difference in size between tiny DART and Dimorphos, the smaller of the two asteroids. 

Prior to the test, Dimorphos orbited Didymos in just under 12 hours. NASA expects the impact to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1%. Though small, if done far enough away from Earth, a nudge like this could potentially deflect a future asteroid headed toward Earth just enough to prevent an impact.

These images, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over the course of a few hours, show the cloud of debris coming from the Didymos system after DART crashed into Dimorphos. NASA, ESA, Jian-Yang Li (PSI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Did it work?

The last bits of data that came from the DART spacecraft right before impact showed that it was on course. The fact that the images stopped transmitting after the target point was reached was the first sign of success.

Fifteen days before the impact, DART released a small satellite with a camera that was designed to document the entire impact. The small satellite has been sending photos of the impact back to Earth during early October 2022. A number of Earth-based telescopes as well as some satellites in orbit, including Hubble and James Webb, were watching Didymos at the time of the impact as well.

Using data from these telescopes taken at the time of impact as well as over the following weeks, the DART team at NASA has been able to calculate just how much the impact deflected the orbit of Dimorphos. Before DART, it took 11 hours and 55 minutes for the smaller moonlet to orbit the larger asteroid Didymos. The energy from the impact shortened Dimorphos’s orbit by 32 minutes – showing the impact to be more than 25 times more effective than NASA’s conservative goal of 72 seconds.

The force from DART’s impact should slightly shift the orbit of Dimorphos around Didymos. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

What does the test mean for planetary defense?

I believe this test was a great proof-of-concept for many technologies that the U.S. government has invested in over the years. And importantly, it proves that it is possible to send a craft to intercept with a minuscule target millions of miles away from Earth and change its orbit. DART has been a great success.

Over the course of the next months and years, researchers will learn just how efficient the impact was – and most importantly, whether this type of kinetic impact can actually move a celestial object ever so slightly at a great enough distance to prevent a future asteroid from threatening Earth.