NASA’s DART Mission: Rest in Peace

Hello, friends!

As you probably know, NASA’s DART spacecraft deliberately rammed itself into an asteroid on Monday.  This was a test.  It was only a test.  The asteroid in question (named Dimorphos) was never a threat to us.  Someday, though, another asteroid may come along… an asteroid that does threaten us… an asteroid that could end life as we know it.  The DART Mission was intended to test out ability to defend ourselves, should a large and genuinely threatening asteroid ever show up on our doorstep.

I spent Monday night watching NASA TV’s livestream of the DART Mission.  Those final images from DART’s navigational camera were amazing!  I never really thought about what it would look like to crash into the surface of an asteroid.  Now I know exactly what that would look like.

Anyway, today I thought I’d share a few things that I learned—things that I did not know before—while watching NASA’s livestream, as well as the press conference that was held after the mission was over.

The Space Force: So I knew DART launched almost a year ago, but I didn’t know it had launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base (I also didn’t know Vandenberg Air Force Base had been renamed).  I still think the whole Space Force thing is cringy, but at least the Space Force did help do something to actually defend our planet.  So that’s cool!
DART’s Solar Panels: In addition to testing our planetary defense capabilities, the DART spacecraft also tested a few new space technologies.  Most notably, DART was using a new, experimental solar panel design.  DART launched with its solar panels rolled up into cylinders, then the solar panels unrolled once the spacecraft was in space.  The new design apparently weighs a lot less than traditional solar panels, and anything we can do to lower the weight of a spacecraft helps make spaceflight less expensive.
Dimorphos’s Shape: This one really surprised me.  Apparently nobody knew what Dimorphos looked like until those last few minutes before impact.  The most high-res images we had were still not high-res enough to reveal the asteroid’s shape or any useful details about its appearance.  As a result, DART had to be programmed with some sort of machine learning algorithm to help it figure out what it was supposed to be aiming for.

While the DART Mission was a success, it’ll still be a while before we know exactly how effective it was at moving the orbit of an asteroid.  Telescopes up in space and down here on the ground will continue monitoring Dimorphos as the dust settles (both figuratively and literally).  Still, as a citizen of Planet Earth, I do feel a little bit safer living on this planet.  I mean, we still have a lot of challenges we need to overcome, but that asteroid problem?  I think we’ve got that one covered now.

So did you watch NASA’s livestream on Monday?  Did you learn anything new, either from the livestream or from other news sources covering the DART Mission?

P.S.: If you missed the livestream, click here to watch it on YouTube.  Or you can click here to watch the press conference that was held afterward.

17 thoughts on “NASA’s DART Mission: Rest in Peace

  1. I did watch it live! Held my breath every time the target asteroid seemed to drift away from the center of DART’s camera view. The asteroid sure looked like a pile of gravel with a dusty coating. Now I’m wondering… did the impact simply separate the chunks a bit so the center of gravity is unchanged? Or will the asteroid’s orbit be altered? The impact was an event. Data analysis is a process…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve seen a bunch of tweets from people in the aerospace industry saying the impact produced way more ejecta than expected. I don’t want to jump to conclusions based on what people are saying on Twitter, even if they are experts in their field, but it does sound like Dimorphos was more of a rubble pile than anyone expected, which may mean DART was less effective that we hoped. But again, it’s early, and as you said data analysis is a process.

      And even if it turns out DART was not super effective against a rubble pile asteroid, that’s still really good information for us to know.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I would imagine that rubble pile asteroids aren’t as much of a threat to earth anyways. They’d probably break up in the upper atmosphere causing a bunch of shooting stars, most of which would burn up. I’m guessing, maybe not. But it should be find even if DART is more effective against the kind of asteroid that can actually hurt us.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You know, I kind of want to read up more about that myself. I know of a few asteroids that exploded in Earth’s upper atmosphere, with lots of little bits raining down to Earth afterward. I’m pretty sure the Tunguska and Chelyabinsk asteroids exploded like that. Maybe they were rubble piles, too?

        The force of those explosions still caused lot of damage on the ground, though. But if they were rubble piles and if we replaced them with solid rock asteroids, would that have been better or worse? Probably worse, but I don’t know.

        Anyway, yeah… that’s something I want to learn more about at some point.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I recall a scifi show where helpful aliens came to Earth to warn of bad-guy aliens. The good alien asked if Earth had a fleet to defend it, and the human said, well, we have a few shuttles. “These shuttles…” the alien asked. “They are formidable craft?” Imagine if the human said, cube-sats.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My biggest concern when watching it live was that the image data wouldn’t transmit off of DART fast enough to give us a close look. Based on the gasps of delight in the control room with that last image, I think that part worked better than they expected.

    The rubble pile scenario is what I suspected / feared. But maybe it will still make enough of a difference to be useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s basically what happened with that very last image, right? Where only the top part of the image transmitted and the rest was just a red screen. DART couldn’t get that final picture out fast enough.

      I saw another blogger say hitting a rubble pile with a kinetic impactor like DART might be about as effective as kicking a pile of leaves. But I feel like that’s probably an exaggeration. Even if the asteroid breaks apart and re-coalesces afterward, there’s got to be a change in the asteroid’s overall momentum. A fairly big change, I’d think.

      Though it may not be possible for us to predict or control that change in momentum, which would still be a major problem for a mission to stop an actual hazardous asteroid.

      Liked by 1 person

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