“It’s hard to send something to Mars, for example, but this object is so much smaller, [this challenge] is something that is completely new, this is the first time we’re trying to do this, it’s crossing a major frontier for space.
The project team now has a long wait to see if DART will hit its intended target, with the craft projected to collide with Dimorphos in September of 2022.
Telescopes on Earth will get initial measurements on whether the mission was a success, with only a small change in the asteroid’s orbit needed.
Mr Fittock is working on project HERA, a mission from the European Space Agency due to launch in November 2024 that will send probes to orbit the two asteroids and get detailed information about the impact DART had.
“We still need to find out what happened to the asteroid after the hit, and that’s where HERA comes in,” he said.
“It has a suite of cameras, lasers and radars to give us really accurate information about the effect DART has.”
Didymos and Dimorphos are not any threat to the Earth, even after DART hits the smaller asteroid, however the threat of bombardment from space is not the stuff of science fiction.
Earth has been hit by numerous asteroids, some large enough to have an effect on the planet’s life.
Some experts argue we are overdue for one, with the last major planet-altering impact 65 million years ago, which contributed to the extinction of almost all dinosaur species.
Mr Fittock said HERA would give them a good idea of whether DART would be able to knock such an asteroid out of the way to avoid a repeat of that disaster.
“We’re ever increasing our knowledge of our local region of space, and asteroids are there,” he said. “As long as we know they are there with a good separation of time, then we have a chance to send a spacecraft like DART to give them a nudge so they fly somewhere else.”