How NAU played a role in NASA's historic DART launch

An exciting NASA project unfolded in space on Sept. 26 as scientists slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid millions of miles away from Earth, and Northern Arizona University played a role in the historic project.

The DART spacecraft has been traveling to reach its target since November. DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, and the moment was streamed live by NASA.

The asteroid posed no threat to earth.

Essentially, NASA hurled a thousand-pound vending machine-sized spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,000 mph. It's been years of work to get to this moment.

Northern Arizona University was involved in the project and closely watched as the spacecraft hit the asteroid.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time, so I'm just … whew!" said Dr. Cristina Thomas with NAU.

Thomas leads the observations working group for NASA's mission. She was at the launch of the spacecraft in November 2021 and says telescopes on every continent are observing every second.

"We're about to get into completely unknown territory. Here we have a lot of models suggesting what happens next, but no one has ever done this before, which is what makes it so exciting," she said.

Her team will now monitor the new orbit for Dimorphos to see how much the impact moved the asteroid. The findings will impact future research on planetary defense from asteroid impacts.

Nothing dangerous is headed Earth's way now, Thomas says, but it's important to prepare for anything.

"We're definitely taking science fiction and turning it into reality," Thomas said.

This is science in action.

Related: Direct impact: NASA's DART spacecraft successfully slams into asteroid