Our Place in Space: The DART Mission

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, D is for…

THE DART MISSION

So far this month, I’ve been telling you about things that I think will happen (or plausibly could happen) at some point in the distant future.  But today, I’m going to talk about something that’ll happen in the not-so-distant future.  Something that will happen in the very near future, actually.  Later this year, in fact!  In late September or early October of 2022, a NASA space probe named DART will deliberately crash into an asteroid named Dimorphos.

Dimorphos is a relatively small asteroid orbiting a much larger asteroid named Didymos.  Basically, Dimorphos is Didymos’s moon.  These two asteroids will be passing fairly close to Earth later this year.  Now I want to be 100% clear about this: neither Didymos nor Dimorphos are going to collide with our planet.  We are in no danger.  But these asteroids will be coming close enough that we could do a little experiment—an experiment to see just how well we could defend our planet from a dangerous, mass-extinction-causing asteroid, should such an asteroid ever come our way.

DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.  As you can see in the highly technical diagram below, the plan is for the DART spacecraft to have a head-on collision with Dimorphos.

This head-on collision should cause Dimorphos to lose some orbital momentum, which should alter Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos.  How different will Dimorphos’s new orbit be?  Hard to say.  The exact angle of impact… the astroid’s mineral composition… the amount of debris produced by the collision… all of these things may factor into what Dimorphos’s new orbit looks like.

Astronomers can do all the computer simulations they like, but until we throw a real life projectile at a real life asteroid, we won’t really know what will happen.  Not with any kind of precision.  Ergo, we need to do this experiment.

Looking once more into the distant future, I believe that humanity is going to spread out across space.  Large numbers of people will eventually be living on the Moon and Mars, as well as on other planets and moons of our Solar System.  But I also believe these humans in the distant future will take good care of the Earth.  Among other things, they will know how to defend Earth from incoming asteroids and comets, so that what happened to the dinosaurs never has to happen again.  And that capability—the capability to keep Earth safe from killer asteroids and comets—begins with a little NASA experiment scheduled to occur later this year.

Want to Learn More?

Here are a few papers that I’ve been reading about the upcoming DART Mission.  This is where I got most of the information for today’s post:

13 thoughts on “Our Place in Space: The DART Mission

  1. Ooooh, I like the change in pace from very future to almost right now James. How exciting! I shall keep an eye out for the reports when this takes place (I hope there will be reports and that proper science journalism won’t have died out completely).

    Debs visiting this year from
    Debs Carey-NLP Coach

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get really frustrated with science journalism in the popular press. It’s not that they’re totally wrong in what they say, but they tend to hype things up to get a sexier headline, and they tend to gloss over important details. I’d recommend more niche sources for science news, like Space.com or Universe Today. They’re a little more accurate without getting overly technical.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that would be scary! But I think we’ll be okay. That little moonlet would have to gain orbital momentum (a whole lot of it, I’d expect) in order to become a threat to us; instead, the impact will cause Dimorphos to lose orbital momentum. We just don’t know yet how much orbital momentum it will lose.

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  2. I expect it’ll be a challenge to collect all the data NASA hopes for. The solar system has so many bodies that can affect an asteroid… I wonder how far in advance we’ll ever be able to predict orbits? Maybe we’ll need a honking big impacter someday to defend the Earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of those papers I cited talks about the plans for collecting data after the impact (I haven’t finished reading that paper yet, though). I know there’s a second probe accompanying DART which will watch what happens, and with the two asteroids passing so near to Earth, a lot of ground based telescopes will be able to watch what happens as well. So it sounds like there will be plenty of eyes watching the big event and monitoring the aftermath as well.

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  3. Nice technical diagram, which I’m sure was perfectly drawn to scale.

    I think I read something a while back that at least some small asteroids may be much more loosely packed than we currently imagine. If this is one of them, seems like the results could be…messy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those “rubble pile” asteroids seem to be very common. I’ve been wondering if DART might punch straight through the asteroid and come out the other side, without changing the orbit much. I haven’t heard any of the science experts express a concern like that, though, so I probably shouldn’t worry.

      I always go for 100% scientific accuracy in my technical diagrams. I’m not sure if I got the solar panels on DART right, though. The reference images I looked at made it hard to tell how big they really are.

      Liked by 1 person

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