We are only a few days away from what is, in my opinion, the #1 most important space story of the year. No, I’m not talking about the launch of Artemis 1. And no, this has nothing to do with the Webb Telescope either. I’m talking about NASA’s DART Mission.
For eons now, asteroids have been zipping and zooming past our planet. Every once in a while, one of those asteroids will hit our planet, causing anywhere from minor to major to global mass extinction event levels of damage. But on Monday, September 27, 2022, humanity will perform our first ever experiment to see if it’s possible to smack an incoming asteroid away.
The asteroid in question is named Dimorphos. Dimorphos is not actually a threat to us, but if we’re going to perform an experiment like this, Dimorphos is a rather convenient target for target practice. That’s because Dimorphos is not just an asteroid; it’s also a moon (or should I call it a moonlet?) orbiting a larger asteroid named Didymos.
When the DART spacecraft crashes into Dimorphos, the force of the impact will change Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos. It should be fairly easy for astronomers to measure this change, and thus it should be fairly easy to judge how effective DART was—and just how effective DART would have been against an asteroid that was actually threatening us.
Oh, and just in case anyone’s concerned that DART might accidentally knock Dimorphos out of its original orbit entirely and send it hurtling our way, thus ironically causing the very disaster this mission was meant to help prevent—don’t worry. Didymos’s gravitational hold on Dimorphos is strong. No matter what happens on this mission, Didymos is not going to let her little moonlet go (another reason why Dimorphos was selected as the target for this experiment).
So on Monday, September 27, 2022, there will be a head-on collision between an asteroid/moonlet and a NASA spacecraft.
An Italian-built spacecraft named LICIACube will be positioned nearby to observe the experiment. A multitude of Earth-based telescopes will also be watching. The European Space Agency also plans to send a follow-up mission (named Hera) in 2026, to check up on Dimorphos after its post-impact orbit has had some time to settle down.
Life on Earth has never been able to defend itself from incoming asteroids before. Life on Earth has never had the ability to even try, until now . Obviously asteroids are not the only threat to life on our planet. Obviously this is not the only challenge we need to overcome. But the DART Mission is a huge first step. A true giant leap. No, DART probably won’t get the same kind of love and attention as Webb or Artemis 1, but still I’d say this is the #1 most important space story of the year. This may be one of the most important science experiments in all of Earth history.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
- Scientific American has done a good write up about the DART Mission and its significance. Click here to read it.
- The Planetary Society released a podcast where they interview some of the researchers involved in DART. Click here to listen.
- And you know NASA had to make a countdown clock. Click here to find out how much time is left until that head-on collision between DART and Dimorphos.
P.S.: I said life on Earth has never before had the ability to defend itself from incoming asteroids. Technically speaking, we cannot be 100% sure that’s true. Click here to read my post on the Silurian Hypothesis.