NASA’s DART mission is about to begin the fight against an asteroid apocalypse

On Monday, astronomers and scientists around the world will be eagerly waiting to see if NASA can smash a very expensive computer into a space rock. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is the agency’s attempt to see if it can slightly alter the speed of an orbiting asteroid – something that sounds small (and maybe a bit pointless), but could have devastating consequences. one day in the future.

The idea is that if a giant rock out there were to, say, pose a threat of species annihilation and extinction to Earth, we could use a device like DART – dubbed a “kinetic impactor” – to get out of the way of our planet. It would not be necessary to sacrifice a secret US-Russian spacecraft to blow it up with nukes. And no sending a team of oil drillers instead of astronauts to the asteroid… for too blow it up with nukes. In fact, the concept behind DART at first glance looks like a glorified game of bumper cars in the cosmos.

But in reality, it’s the beginning of a functioning planetary defense system, which could one day save our entire species from extinction.

DART is on a collision course with Dimorphos on September 26 at 7:14 p.m. EDT.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

“The DART mission is an important step in our development of planetary defense capabilities,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson told The Daily Beast. “It’s a step in the process.”

Johnson leads the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), a team of astronomers and scientists tasked with the stated objective of “warning and response to any potential Earth impact by an asteroid or comet.” So far, much of the group’s work has gone into finding and cataloging the tens of thousands of near-Earth asteroids, or one asteroid that is within 93 million miles of the sun. .

However, the DART mission marks their first official foray into the defense part of planetary defense. It is Sputnik that protects the Earth from asteroids and comets that would otherwise harm us. If and when he completes his cosmic suicide mission, he will lay the groundwork for future planetary defense measures, including ion beam cannons and, yes, nuclear asteroids for the realm to come.

DART is currently on its way to Dimorphos, a 170-meter-wide “moonlet” about 6.8 million miles from Earth, orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos. Traveling at 14,760 mph, DART will impact the moon on Monday, September 26 at 7:14 p.m. EDT. LICIACube, a cubic satellite that was sent by DART earlier this month to observe and collect data on the collision, will observe the collision from afar.

“First, we’ll have an understanding of how effective a kinetic impactor is at deflecting an asteroid in space,” Johnson explained. “Plus, we’ll learn more about the composition of the asteroid. Even though we think we have a good understanding of what’s going to happen, we always have a few surprises when we fly a mission like this.

It’s not as dramatic as a nuclear bomb, but it doesn’t have to be. While Johnson said nuclear weapons are an option, using them would be a highly unlikely course of action for planetary defense. On the one hand, we are not looking to blow up asteroids, but simply to push them aside. In a real-life scenario where a killer asteroid is heading our way, all we have to do is nudge it a bit off course to change course and completely miss Earth.

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DART is NASA’s attempt to see if it can slightly alter the speed of an orbiting asteroid.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Johnson added that we have the ability to spot asteroids years, decades and even centuries in advance before they knock on our doorstep. This will give us plenty of time to use measures like kinetic impactors. Using a nuke would be like using a jackhammer when all you need is a hammer.

Also, it’s incredibly difficult to blow up an asteroid without putting the bomb inside. At best, you would do surface-level damage. Jason Isaacs from Armageddon explained it best:

The European Space Agency is also planning the Hera mission, which is a sister mission to DART. This probe should be launched in 2024 to travel to Dimorphos by 2026. It will collect even more data on Didymos and the moon, analyzing the crater created by DART and measuring how much its speed has changed due to the impact .

“It’s valuable information that will be used in the next thing we try to do,” Johnson said. Hera will also be able to create a 3D map of Dimorphos’ surface and obtain infrared images of its temperatures, giving researchers unprecedented levels of detail of a freshly impacted asteroid. This will help inform both how future kinetic impactors will be constructed, while also giving scientists even more scientific information about asteroids.

In fact, Johnson said the PDCO has several doomsday prevention projects that are in the “concept development” stage.

The first is called the gravity tractor. It works by relying on a fairly simple physical law: all bodies with mass exert gravitational attraction. So the idea is that if you get a spacecraft close enough to an asteroid, you can “slowly pull the asteroid out of its current orbit and into a more benign orbit,” Johnson said.

Experts have compared the DART crash into Dimorphos to a school bus crashing into the Great Pyramid.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

“The good thing about it is you can control what the new orbit is going to be a lot better,” he explained, comparing it to the DART. “You pull the asteroid for a while, review how much you’ve modified it, and if it’s not quite where you want it, you keep pulling it some more with the gravity tractor .”

Then there’s the deliciously sci-fi sounding ion beam deflector. This spacecraft would be armed with an ion engine and then launched towards a deadly asteroid where it would fire beams of ions at the space rock until its orbit changed.

So the laser cannon ala star wars is not far from becoming a reality. The only difference is that instead of blowing up the asteroid or Death Star, it kind of pushes it back.

“It’s a constant beam of ions, which are small particles that by themselves don’t do much. But when millions of them hit the surface of the asteroid, it has an effect and will gradually change its trajectory,” Johnson said.

Since we can expect to spot killer asteroids so many years in advance, Johnson said we can truly rely on future humans to have the technological capabilities to deal with any planetary dangers when they come. do arise. This is why the PCDO plans to launch a probe called the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor in 2026. Once operational, it will be able to identify and catalog the entire population of near-Earth asteroids. “within about 10 years”. according to Johnson.

“While if we continued at the rate we are currently going with ground-based observations, it would take us another 30 to 40 years to be able to find the rest of those,” he added.

So, ironically enough, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves from a world-ending apocalypse at the hands of an asteroid is to simply wait and watch. All the kinetic impactors, ion deflectors, gravity tractors, and Bruce Willis-led nuclear missions in the world won’t help us if we don’t know what’s coming.

“Even if we don’t find danger of immediate impact over the next few centuries, it will still provide a catalog of everything that exists,” Johnson said. “It will also find this subset that future humans need to watch out for and track in the future. It’s kind of a legacy project for future generations.