From both the “What could possibly go wrong?” and the “Science fiction becomes reality” files comes word that NASA has officially announced the launch date for a mission to attempt to deflect an asteroid from its path as a test of technology that may one day be needed to save Earth from a meteor or comet on a path to causing mass destruction and possible mass extinction. Movies depicting this scenario (Deep Impact, Armageddon) ended with generally happy conclusions. Will real life follow that script? Get your favorite movie quotes and clichés ready!
“Media accreditation is open for the upcoming launch of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, an evaluation of technologies for preventing a hazardous asteroid from striking Earth.
DART is targeted to launch at 10:20 p.m. PST, Nov. 23, 2021, (1:20 a.m. EST, Nov. 24), aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Live coverage of the launch will air on NASA TV, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.
DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique, which involves sending one or more large, high-speed spacecraft into the path of an asteroid in space to change its motion. Its target is the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos and its moonlet, which pose no threat to Earth.”
DART has been talked about for decades, planned since 2018, and needed since science proved that space rock impacts caused many great extinctions. At the same time, astronomers began getting better at tracking Near Earth Objects, terrorizing Earthlings with predictions of “close but no cigar” meteors and having no answers for actual impacts and near hits they seem to miss on a regular basis. Seeing how popular the blast-an-asteroid movies were and having no other near-term options, NASA decided to try it out on a tiny hapless near-but-not-dangerous asteroid named Dimorphos (Didymos B) which is orbiting Didymos A in the 65803 Didymos binary asteroid system. Didymos A is about 780 m (2,560 ft) in diameter while Dimorphos is just 160 m (520 ft) in diameter As the NASA press release reports, “Didymos is not an Earth-crossing asteroid, and there is no possibility that the deflection experiment could create an impact hazard.” Famous last words? So … what is DART going to do?
“The DART spacecraft will achieve the kinetic impact deflection by deliberately crashing itself into the moonlet at a speed of approximately 6.6 km/s, with the aid of an onboard camera (named DRACO) and sophisticated autonomous navigation software. The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, but this will change the orbital period of the moonlet by several minutes - enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth.”
Solar-powered DART will perform more of a nudge than a knockout – pushing Dimorphos slightly out of its orbit 1 km away from Didymos A but far enough that it can be observed and measured by telescopes. That nudge will be caused by DART itself as it self-destructs into Dimorphos in true movie fashion right after it takes one more look back at its home.
The DART spacecraft launch window begins November 24, 2021. DART will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. After separation from the launch vehicle and over a year of cruise it will intercept Didymos’ moonlet in late September 2022, when the Didymos system is within 11 million kilometers of Earth, enabling observations by ground-based telescopes and planetary radar to measure the change in momentum imparted to the moonlet. (Pause a moment to wipe a romantic tear.)
DART is targeted to launch at 10:20 p.m. PST, Nov. 23, 2021, (1:20 a.m. EST, Nov. 24), aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. NASA is obviously excited about this mission as it is promoting this launch more than usual.
Tom Cruise lost his race to shoot the first movie on the ISS. Maybe he still has time to cut a deal for “Armageddon II – This Time It’s Personal.”