Aerospace researcher makes impact on NASA's DART mission

By Joe McAdory

Masatoshi Hirabayashi is among a team of NASA-supported scientists who analyzed if intentionally crashing a human-made object into a celestial object would change its trajectory.

NASA’s 1,345-pound Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft launched in November 2021 in California and intentionally collided with Dimorphos — the moon of asteroid Didymos — in September 2022.

“The research is to assess how effective and efficient the kinetic impact would be,” said Hirabayashi, who is a co-investigator on the DART mission team, which is led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on behalf of NASA. “This mission is at the core of planetary defense. My role is to characterize this efficiency by looking at actual dynamic motion of the asteroid responding to the DART impact.”

Hirabayashi said impact occured at roughly 15,000 mph when Dimorphos was closest to the earth (6.8 million miles away). Scientists observed the impact from the ground via telescopes. After DART’s impact, Hirabayashi’s responsibilities accelerated and will continue for a full year. Hirabayashi spent a month at APL in Laurel, Maryland continuing his research.

“These studies will provide the perfect foundation for future planetary defense research in the area of asteroid redirection,” said Hirabyashi.

“This is very thrilling for me, personally, and is great for Auburn University to be a part of this important mission that could provide data to help play a role in deflecting an asteroid from crashing into the earth. I’m really excited to have been part of the DART team for the past five years.”