2023 Science, Technology and Environment

Brian Key, Scott Bellamy and The NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test Team

Managed the NASA team that successfully altered the orbit of an asteroid, providing the first-ever planetary defense test that could protect Earth from celestial threats.

It’s the stuff of Hollywood sci-fi thrillers: altering the path of an asteroid smaller than two football fields and millions of miles from Earth by smashing a spacecraft into it.  

In 2022, a NASA team turned science fiction into reality. NASA managers Brian Key and Scott Bellamy directed a project that for the first time in history redirected a planetary object and demonstrated humanity’s ability to hit and deflect a potentially catastrophic asteroid.  

That asteroid—a moonlet named Dimorphos—poses no threat to our planet but is classified as a near-Earth object that could cause significant damage to the globe if a collision occurred. Key and Bellamy’s work is informing future efforts to deflect such hazardous planetary objects.       

“The mission showed that we as humans could actually impact the orbit of a celestial body, which will enable better planetary protection and allow us to understand how other celestial bodies change and what they’re made of,” said Rae Ann Meyer, associate director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.  

A stellar team keeps NASA’s asteroid project on track 

Work on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, began nearly 10 years before the $330 million spacecraft barreled into the egg-shaped Dimorphos as part of ongoing efforts by NASA to meet congressional mandates around tracking near-Earth objects. The “double asteroid” reference in DART’s name stems from Dimorphos’ orbit around a larger nearby asteroid, Didymos.  

Bellamy and Key began work on the project shortly thereafter, in 2016. Key grew up just outside Cape Canaveral, where his father worked for NASA. He recalls marveling at launches and helping park visitors’ cars one summer. That love of space blossomed into a NASA career that has lasted 35 years.  

Working at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center, he kept the sprawling project on track by overseeing funding, staffing, scheduling and technical issues, and coordinating with outside organizations such as the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which helped develop the spacecraft and research equipment.  

Bellamy served in the Air Force for 25 years before joining NASA full time in 2013. He served as the mission manager for the project, ensuring team members were working in lockstep and had the resources they needed. 

Together, they “assured the mission remained viable from concept development through the end of operations,” Meyer said.  

Slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid raises awareness about our planet 

The DART spacecraft, launched in November 2021, was hurtling at 14,000 miles per hour when it crashed into its target. “The biggest obstacle was making sure we could actually hit Dimorphos when we got there,” Bellamy said. 

Key said the final 15 minutes before impact were tense. But when the spacecraft slammed into the asteroid nearly 7 million miles from Earth, “that’s when the party started,” he said.  

Subsequent studies have shown that DART’s impact, plus the recoil from debris flying off the asteroid, reduced the duration of its near 12-hour orbit around Dimorphos by about a half hour—a finding that far exceeded scientists’ expectations.  

Just as important was how the mission raised public awareness about the need to protect Earth from an unforeseen future catastrophe.  

“This captured the minds of the public,” said Caitlin Shearer, DART deputy project manager for Johns Hopkins University. “It’s not very often that you get to be part of a mission that makes such a big impact.”  

The European Space Agency plans to launch a 2024 mission to gather more data about DART’s collision that could be used to defend Earth. Developing technology to do that will take many years of additional work and significant investment.  

“All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.