NASA’s DART: Science fiction has become reality

NASA’s DART: science fiction has become reality
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The destruction of a multi-million dollar starship isn’t usually cause for celebration. But the crash of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft onto an asteroid is an important exception.

On Monday, NASA announced that DART had collided with Dimorphos, a small body just 160 meters across orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos, located 6.8 million miles from Earth. This deliberate collision of a car-sized spacecraft with an asteroid – the equivalent of a golf cart hitting the side of a soccer stadium at 15,000 miles per hour – is an enormously impressive feat of engineering. It is the first step in developing a means to deflect an asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

All of this may seem unnecessary, especially given that there are no known large asteroids that have a significant chance of hitting Earth in the next century. At the same time, however, it’s important to note that the threat isn’t imaginary — despite being the subject of several Hollywood blockbusters. Eventually, the dinosaurs were probably wiped out by an asteroid impact that struck Earth 65 million years ago. As with technology review points out: “People are understandably anxious to avoid that [dinosaurs’] fate.’

Researchers believe DART may have shortened Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by one percent — about 10 minutes. This would be enough to significantly alter the orbit that the asteroid is traveling. And it could therefore show how we could deflect an asteroid towards Earth.

Scientists won’t know the full picture for four years, when the European Space Agency launches its Hera mission. This mission will study the influence of DART on the orbit of Dimorphos, the diameter and depth of the DART crater, and the internal structure and composition of Dimorphos. This should give us a better understanding of what it takes to move an asteroid.

Meanwhile, ground-based telescopes alongside the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes will track what happens next and watch for changes in Dimorphos’ orbit.

This investment in defending the planet is an impressive commitment to long-term thinking. It is no understatement to say that what NASA and the European Space Agency are doing right now could benefit humans enormously for centuries to come. It should be seen as part of mankind’s rational and conscious attempt to exercise ever greater levels of domination over nature. And it will allow us to plan more rigorously for the future.

Patrick Michel, a planetary scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and principal investigator on the Hera mission, best captured the scientifically adventurous spirit of the entire venture. “It’s very exciting because anything could have happened,” he said after the successful impact of DART.

We don’t know how this will turn out. But for Michel and others involved with the DART and Hera missions, this uncertainty is an opportunity, not a threat. The missions are a chance to experiment and take risks deep in space. And through this process we may be able to develop knowledge that will be of great use to future generations.

All of this represents a welcome response to the fatalism that dominates our historic hour. These scientists are not passively waiting for the future. They try to exercise some control over it in the here and now. And that’s certainly something worth celebrating.

Norman Lewis is the author and CEO of Futures Diagnosis.

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