EAST LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan State University scientist is helping take NASA a step closer to saving the planet from future asteroids.

Seth Jacobson, assistant professor and planetary scientist, has contributed to a research paper in the journal Nature that demonstrates how NASA has succeeded in knocking an asteroid off its path near Earth.

Many MSU undergraduate students are conducting important research for the DART study, though their names aren’t on the research paper, said Jacobson.

Though Earth wasn’t in apparent danger from this particular asteroid, the Nature paper shows that the Double Asteroid Redirect Test, or DART, is able to redirect an asteroid’s course, potentially preventing future collisions.

The purpose behind DART is that if an asteroid is headed for Earth in the future, scientists could deflect it from the planet’s path by hitting it with a low-cost spacecraft without people aboard.

To test the theory, NASA sent the DART Impactor spacecraft at 13,000 mph on a collision course with an asteroid named Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid named Didymos.

The collision occurred about 7 million miles from Earth–close enough to be viewed with telescopes like the one at MSU’s observatory.

Jacobson, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the astronomy students at the MSU Observatory are key to the university’s DART research.

“The undergrads are driving research at the observatory,” Jacobson said in a press release.

“They’re out there observing all night. They finish their classes, have dinner, stay up until 5 o’clock in the morning at the observatory and still make their classes the next day,” he continued.

Emma Dugan, an MSU senior in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, chose DART as her senior thesis project after seeing one of Jacobson’s presentations.

The DART mission was happening at the perfect time,” Dugan said.

“After I heard Seth’s talk, we realized the observatory would be capable of seeing the asteroid.”

DART works with the support of a global network of observatories, like the one at MSU, because it is less expensive to do so than with NASA’s technology alone.

“The James Webb Space Telescope and Hubble both looked at the asteroid before and after impact, but it’s really expensive to do that,” Dugan said.

Instead, scientists like the MSU students watched the asteroid on clear nights for a month.

Though the students’ research from the MSU observatory did not appear in the Nature research paper, their work produced new observation techniques and new data, as well as enabling future MSU students to research near-Earth asteroids at the observatory.