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?