DART is an abbreviation for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, and it is in reality a spaceship that will fly to space and then transform into a projectile that will smash into an asteroid when it arrives. This instrument will be used by NASA to test the hypothesis that, with sufficient mass and speed, we might, if necessary, change the course of an asteroid racing toward our planet.
We’ve written extensively about DART over the last several years, and now we’ve received news that the mission is nearing its final phases before launch. Earlier this month, the DART spacecraft was outfitted with the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids (LICIACube), a piece of equipment that will track the spacecraft’s last maneuver and collision with the asteroid.
We also received news that a date for the launch had been selected. If the weather cooperates, DART will leave our planet on November 23 at 10:20 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST). The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will launch from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, will be responsible for putting the structure into orbit
The asteroid Didymos is the target of DART’s mission. It contains a main body that is 780 meters (2,560 feet) wide and a smaller body that measures 160 meters (525 feet) across that rotates around the main body. It’s the smaller chunk of rock that DART intends to slam against at speeds of up to 15,000 miles per hour (24,140 kph).
During the test, the smaller body’s speed and orbit must vary by at least a fraction of one percent; this may seem trivial, but it translates into an orbital period of several minutes if the difference is more than one percent.
It has been known for quite some time that people have the ability to harm the environment in which we live. To create a crater on the surface of asteroid Ryugu, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) utilized its Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which was launched at high speed. The spacecraft caused a crater that measured 2 meters in diameter (6.5 feet).
Despite the fact that they seem to be very violent, these tests are necessary because they have the potential to open the door to planetary protection technology that we desperately need. The most recent NASA simulation of an asteroid impact demonstrated that there is nothing we can do to avoid it at the present, even if we were given six months notice.
Why an Asteroid Strike Is like a Pandemic?
Pretend you’re in the following situation. Scientists have identified a possible worldwide danger, but the available evidence is shaky and insufficient to warrant immediate action. The danger is growing at a rapid and unrelenting pace. Things that were previously avoidable have become unavoidable. The world has no option but to bear the brunt of the catastrophe, which will cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives.
However, this may as well be the tale of a cataclysmic asteroid impact that causes a pandemic of COVID to engulf the whole world. As we recover from the worst of COVID-19, we should take note of the following lesson: low-probability, high-impact catastrophes do occur, but they may be minimized if we plan ahead of time and take action quickly.
In some ways, asteroids are similar to viruses in that they exist in tens of millions, yet only a small percentage of them represent a danger to humanity. When it comes to asteroids, it is the “near-Earth” variety—those with orbits that are quite close to our own—that we should be concerned about.
Similarly to viral epidemics, the probability of a disaster is low in any one year, but it is virtually certain over time as the virus spreads. We can utilize contemporary technology to create a degree of global immune response to asteroid impacts in the same way that we can in theory produce vaccines against new diseases before they do too much harm, thus generating immunity without making people ill. While the United States has spent more than $6.5 billion dollars on pandemic preparation over the last decade (with admittedly varied outcomes), the country has spent less than a tenth of that amount on the task of asteroid detection and deflection. This is much too low a figure.
In reality, space-related effects occur on a regular basis, although they are often minor and non-lethal in nature. Throughout the year, the Earth is bombarded by meteors that are just a few inches wide or less in diameter, which burn up as shooting stars as soon as they reach our atmosphere. The bigger ones, which are the size of a home or greater, are the ones that pose a danger. These occur on a less regular basis, but they are still possible. A meteor with a diameter of 60 feet burst above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, hurting hundreds of people. The really massive ones, measuring miles wide, are more more uncommon, happening just once per few hundred million years or so. However, the harm they do may be very severe. Consider the great extinction that occurred 65 million years ago, which took off the majority of the dinosaurs. The good news is that we’ve tracked down the vast majority of them, and, luckily for us, Earth is not among their targets.
Then there’s the “city killer” asteroids, which are about the size of a football field and have the potential to unleash a blast with 10,000 times the intensity of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. These asteroids are approximately the size of a football field and have the potential to destroy cities. On average, they seem to strike us once every few thousand years. Even though there are hundreds of them with orbits that are close to Earth’s, we have only discovered approximately one-third of them.
And locating them is difficult. Even the largest ones are little in comparison to the vastness of space, and their charcoal-like dark surfaces help them blend in with the darkness of the cosmos. Because these objects are tiny and faint, ground-based telescopes, which measure reflected light, have a difficult time detecting them. Every year, just a few hundred new species are found. We need to move away from the Earth and into the domain of asteroids if we are to substantially increase the rate of detection. We need a space-based telescope.
The NASA Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor is a small space telescope that is presently being considered for deployment. Asteroid heat fingerprints would be sought for instead of reflected light, asteroids emitting infrared radiation against the frigid backdrop of space would be a better match for the mission. Moreover, since there is no poor weather or daylight to impede observations in space, the NEO Surveyor has the potential to detect more city-killing asteroids in the next 10 years than have been found by all of the observatories on Earth combined during the previous three decades.
The mathematics of orbital mechanics, which defines asteroids, may be as callous as the exponential development associated with virus epidemics in terms of its impact on the environment. A concerted effort to identify potentially dangerous asteroids, similar to the wide testing regimens that have been employed throughout COVID, will be critical in avoiding a catastrophe. When an approaching asteroid approaches the Earth, it is conceivable to change its orbit in order to preserve the planet, but this gets more difficult the closer we go to the collision point. It is much more convenient to take action years (if not decades) in advance of a crisis.
After more than a decade in bureaucratic limbo, during which the NEO Surveyor has struggled to obtain permission, the project seems to be poised to go ahead at this point. It was recently suggested by the Biden administration to provide funding for this mission in the most current NASA budget; Congress should approve this proposal. We may witness the beginning of the first focused attempt to grasp the extent of the asteroid danger as early as 2026, but it will take years to construct and launch the spacecraft.
We must also invest in asteroid deflection technology, which will serve as a “vaccination” against asteroid impact. To NASA’s credit, a mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test is on the verge of being launched (DART). A collision with the small “moon” that circles the near-Earth asteroid Didymos would cause the spacecraft’s orbit to be significantly altered in 2022, according to the mission team. Scientists will compare the precise degree of change to their projections, which will help them learn how to more efficiently modify asteroid orbits in the future. Although this is just a test, it has the potential to serve the same purpose as the years of fundamental study into the area of mRNA vaccines that eventually paid off when applied to COVID.
We must also continue to fund ground-based sky surveys, which may aid in the work of space-based missions by providing data on the night sky. The Vera Rubin Observatory, for example, which is now under construction in Chile and is particularly adept at detecting fast-moving objects in the solar system, will be a significant asset in the search for asteroids. In particular, the planned “megaconstellations” of Earth-orbiting satellites by Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, and others threaten to obscure our view of these faint objects and make asteroid identification more difficult. Except than further proving the necessity for space-based detectors situated in calmer areas of the solar system, there is no simple solution to this problem.
The coronavirus epidemic has provided mankind with many sobering lessons. But, let this be one of them: catastrophes with low likelihood but high impact do occur, and there is no greater impact calamity than a big asteroid colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field. We are well known that early awareness leads to early action. Small investments today may help to avoid major issues later on down the road. Let’s not be taken off guard as we were before.