opinion | Three cheers for smashing up a NASA asteroid

Ray Pauleta is the editorial director of the Planetary Society.

Who would have thought that a collision with space rocks could be so beneficial for science – and for humanity’s defense?

On Monday, at 7:14 p.m. ET, NASA will make history by forcing a cube the size of a kitchen appliance to hit an asteroid. Scientists will then be able to assess if asteroid collisions are a viable way to one day save the planet from dangerous objects, if they do.

At first glance, the mission — titled Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART — might seem a little silly (sorry, NASA). An asteroid hitting an eight-ball puddle sounds like something Nathan Fielder might suggest on an episode of “Nathan For You.” You can almost imagine the comedian calmly introducing a team of NASA engineers: “The plan? Save the planet from a dangerous asteroid by hitting it with a multi-million dollar spacecraft.”

But NASA has serious hopes for the mission. If successful, it could change how planetary defense projects are funded and developed.

Asteroids are a tiny portal that is notorious for being sticky. On the one hand, they are remnants from the birth of our solar system. Leftovers from the beginning of it all – or whatever our chip. On the other hand, asteroids have caused unimaginable damage to our planet. Roughly 66 million years ago, an asteroid 6 miles wide struck off the coast of what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. One asteroid robbed us of the chance to see a pterodactyl flying through the sky, or have it use us for food, depending on how you look at it.

DART cannot undo damage from past asteroid collisions, but it can help us prevent them in the future. With DART colliding, scientists tested a planetary defense strategy known as “kinetic collision technology,” which aims to move — not destroy — an object.

In the case of DART, the target was Dimorphos, a rock orbiting another much larger asteroid called Didymos. (In astrological terms, this makes Demorphos a “little moon.”) If all goes as planned, DART will have pushed Demorphos close to its parent asteroid, changing the time it takes to orbit Didymos from 11.9 to 11.8 hours – a small but significant change .

Fortunately, Didymus and Demorphus pose no threat on Earth, so no matter what happened on Monday, humanity is safe for now. But being near-Earth asteroids, Didymos and Demorphos belong to a class of rocky bodies that require somewhat more attention. According to the NASA Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, about 29,000 such objects have been detected. Of this number, a few thousand are considered “potentially dangerous”, but it is difficult to find exact numbers.

While the risk of a massive asteroid hitting Earth is very low, when near-Earth objects (asteroids and sometimes comets) make their way into our atmosphere, the results can be devastating. In 1908, an asteroid or comet traveling at about 33,500 miles per hour blew three to six miles over the Podkamenaya Tunguska River in Siberia. Exact details about this event, called Tunguska Impact, are still shrouded in mystery. But the energy released during the explosion destroyed entire forests, killing large areas of trees and animals. It is estimated that the force of the explosion was probably 15 megatons of TNT.

History repeated itself in 2013—although thankfully to a much lesser degree—when a 65-foot-high asteroid exploded about 14 miles before hitting Earth over Chelyabinsk in Russia, causing a massive cloud of gas and dust to form. The subsequent shock wave destroyed 7,200 buildings in six cities and injured 1,500 people.

What makes asteroids and events like this fundamentally terrifying is that they were completely out of our control. The idea of ​​an object hitting the ground randomly and causing so much destruction is ontologically daunting.

It is true that we cannot manipulate the trajectory of every near-Earth object, but we can identify and track their orbits in greater detail than ever before. Additionally, investing in planetary defense missions like DART brings us closer to preventing what has always seemed unpreventable.

Planetary Defense might sound like something out of a space thriller, like Michael Bay’s explosive 1998 movie, Armageddon. But it’s not science fiction. In fact, my organization, the Planetary Society, has made Planet Defense one of the core principles of our mission. We strive to educate the public about missions like DART, appeal to Congress to fund planetary defense and provide grants to amateur astronomers working to understand NEOs.

Distracting attention from asteroids is a feat of ambition — even fanciful. But the same goes for saving the world. Both are worth the effort.

Leave a Comment