Everything looked great on paper. Cristina A. Thomas and her team had made sure of that. The work for NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test — aka DART — had begun years ago.

“We spent a lot of time in the past studying what the orbit was and, by doing that, we also had determined exactly what we needed,” Thomas, a planetary scientist at Northern Arizona University who leads an observations team on DART, explained to the Deseret News in an interview.

Telescopes in South Africa and Israel were ready to observe a NASA spacecraft crashing into an asteroid while Thomas sat at an applied physics laboratory with her colleagues in Maryland, glued to her phone as images came in.

“I wasn’t nervous about anything,” she said, admitting that she felt excited, not only for the day’s events but what data would reveal in weeks to come.

Earth strikes back: NASA successfully crashes spacecraft into asteroid in planetary defense test

The future of planetary defense

The mission was the space agency and the world’s first test of using kinetic impactors as a planetary defense.

“That’s essentially taking one object and hitting it against something else. There is no explosion,” she said.

In this case, it was a spacecraft, going at the speed of approximately 14,000 miles per hour, hitting Dimorphos, the moon of the asteroid Didymos. The first few photos of the impact that occurred seven million miles away showed a bright flash of light and a trail of debris.

None of this was unexpected, “but it was still totally mind-blowing to actually see it happen,” said Thomas, who also did preliminary work for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission before it launched.

Would Earth survive a devastating asteroid impact?

As of last week, Thomas was coordinating with nearly 40 telescopes. “I get new emails every day,” she said, telling me about an independent researcher with a telescope in southern Arizona.

A mission like this requires an international team, so there’s data coming in from telescopes all around the world. Planetary defense is an international issue, after all.

There are two components to approaching defense systems in space — the first is discovering all celestial objects and understanding their level of threat and the second is mitigation.

A 1991 bill directed the space agency to learn everything about asteroids — the risk they pose and defenses that are necessary, per Vox. Now, scientists estimate that 95% of potentially dangerous near-earth objects have been identified.

The idea of targeting the moon of a binary asteroid was floated around as a possible solution for diverting the object — and this is what DART aimed to test out.

Was NASA’s DART mission a success?

Observations continued until earlier this week when NASA announced that the mission was a success as the asteroid's orbit was altered — marking the first time humanity has purposefully changed the path of an object in space, the agency said in a press release.

It now takes Dimorphos 32 minutes to orbit around Didymos, exceeding the space agency’s minimum benchmark of 73 seconds.

Yes, the mission was a spectacular engineering and scientific success, but the numbers aren’t fully there to show exactly how successful the mission was, explained Thomas.

“As new data come in each day, astronomers will be able to better assess whether, and how, a mission like DART could be used in the future to help protect Earth from a collision with an asteroid if we ever discover one headed our way,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington, per the release.

Whether it's the level of impact or the asteroid’s physical properties, there are many questions yet to be answered before the applicability of the DART mission is assessed.

“This is something the world cares about,” Thomas said, “And I think that we’ve really shown the great collaborations that can happen.”