Last month, a spacecraft collided with an asteroid, bringing it closer to its companion and accelerating its orbit by around 32 minutes. It proves that humans may be able to dramatically alter the path of a potentially dangerous asteroid, especially if we have advance notice that one is approaching. This is a major turning point for the field of planetary defense.

Telescopes on Earth and in space were observing the activity when the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission sent a spacecraft crashing onto its surface on September 26. Initial data from those observatories now demonstrate that DART succeeded in its objective. Dimorphos took roughly 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit Didymos, its much larger companion asteroid, before the crash. Currently, the same journey takes 11 hours and 23 minutes.

It is a huge victory for the expedition that even a 73-second adjustment in an asteroid’s orbit would have been considered a triumph. Researchers believe that the hit dispersed tons of material, producing an impressive-looking debris plume in the process, which is one of the causes of the significant change in orbit. According to NASA, this “recoil” provided the collision a lift.

Is Dimorphos wobbling?

Scientists will need time to fully understand the consequences in many ways. To respond to queries like: Is there a new shape to the orbit, they will be studying a great deal more observations. Dimorphos is he swaying? When we slammed into the asteroid at 14,000 mph, how much debris came off of it?

Once they have that knowledge, the modeling will intensify further. Using the data from the observatories, they will repeatedly put it through physics models until they have a good understanding of what transpired. This will give scientists a decent sense of what to expect when the Hera mission from the European Space Agency visits the asteroid system in a few years.

“All of this data contributes to our comprehension of what actually transpired throughout the experiment. How significantly did the asteroid’s motion change as a result of the kinetic impact? How well did the momentum transfer? It’s too early to say because there are many variables in this computation, said NASA DART program scientist Tom Statler at a press conference.

All of that knowledge is essential for any upcoming effort to divert an asteroid that is hurtling toward Earth, which is the cornerstone of planetary defense. Although Dimorphos and Didymos did not represent a threat to Earth, scientists are nevertheless keeping an eye out for potential dangers in other asteroids and near-Earth objects.

Even while these early findings from the DART mission are encouraging, future efforts to protect our planet from space rocks will not stop with learning how to move an asteroid. Knowing what dangers are present and becoming aware of them as soon as feasible is a far bigger problem.

Dimorphos’ orbital period around Didymos changed by 4% as a result, according to Nancy Chabot, DART coordination lead at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The timing would be crucial, but a similar “little shove” to an asteroid that might be dangerous might be sufficient to keep it off of Earth’s path. “It might work if you wanted to do this in the future. However, you would need to start years in advance. Here, the warning period is crucial, according to Chabot.

According to Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, “the single most essential thing that we need to know is which ones out there are possibly dangerous, and when might they be potentially dangerous.” The Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, which would specifically check for these kinds of dangers, is being developed by NASA. The project is regarded as a top priority by the planetary science community, but financial issues have arisen in recent legislative budget cycles.