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‘NASA is defender of Earth’: Space agency discusses world’s first Planetary Defense test

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The spacecraft that NASA deliberately crashed into an asteroid last month succeeded in nudging the rocky moonlet out of its natural orbit, the first time humanity has altered the motion of a celestial body, NASA’s chief announced on Tuesday.

Findings of telescope observations unveiled at a NASA news briefing showed that the suicide test flight of the DART spacecraft  on 26 September achieved its primary objective: changing the direction of an asteroid through sheer kinetic force.

NASA on Tuesday said it had succeeded in deflecting an asteroid in a historic test of humanity’s ability to stop an incoming cosmic object from devastating life on Earth.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) impactor deliberately smashed into the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, pushing it into a smaller, faster orbit around its big brother Didymos, said NASA chief Bill Nelson.

“DART shortened the 11 hour 55 minute orbit to 11 hours and 23 minutes,” he said. Speeding up Dimorphos‘ orbital period by 32 minutes exceeded NASA’s own expectation of 10 minutes.

“We showed the world that NASA is serious as a defender of this planet,” added Nelson.

The asteroid pair loop together around our Sun every 2.1 years, and pose no threat to our planet.

But they are ideal for studying the “kinetic impact” method of planetary defense, in case an actual approaching object is ever detected.

Astronomers rejoiced in stunning images of matter spreading out thousands of miles in the wake of the impact — pictures collected by Earth and space telescopes, as well as a mini satellite that had traveled to the zone with DART.

Neither asteroid posed a threat to Earth — and still don’t as they continue their journey around the sun. That’s why scientists picked the pair for the world’s first attempt to alter the position of a celestial body.

Launched last year, the vending machine-size Dart — short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — was destroyed when it slammed into the asteroid 7 million miles (11 million kilometres) away at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph).

The Dart spacecraft carved a crater into the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept 26, hurling debris out into space and creating a cometlike trail of dust and rubble stretching several thousand miles (km). It took days of telescope observations to determine how much the impact altered the path of the 525-foot (160-metre) asteroid around its companion, a much bigger space rock.

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