Out of the Movies: NASA’s Asteroid Redirect

By Ananya Vinay

Fresno, California

NASA Planetary Science Division director Lori Glaze, DART coordination lead Nancy Chabot, and DART program scientist Tom Statler at a media briefing about NASA's recently completed Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). (AP Photo / Alex Brandon)

Every argument against space research claims that the trillions spent on failed rocketry retracts from efforts to defeat poverty and combat societal issues. Yet, every now and then, the feats of space exploration defy human expectations and the frontier of possibility. The latest example of this is NASA’s asteroid redirection.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the first ever planetary defense test, succeeded in impacting the asteroid Dimorphos after 10 months in space. Dimorphos is a small moon just 530 feet wide that orbits a 2560 foot wide asteroid called Didymos. The experiment utilized a technique called kinetic impact, employing intentional collisions for deflection. The next step will be taken by the European Space Agency to survey the crater left on Dimorphos and to calculate the precise mass of the asteroid, which is critical in determining the efficiency of the impact. Astoundingly, the collision even reduced the orbital period of the asteroid by 32 minutes.

The investigation team will now observe Dimorphos using ground-based telescopes to confirm that DART’s impact altered the asteroid’s orbit around Didymos. Researchers expect the impact to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1%, or roughly 10 minutes; one of the primary purposes of the full-scale test is to precisely measure how much the asteroid was deflected.

To understand the magnitude of this achievement, it must be clarified that 560 feet is merely half the length of the Eiffel Tower, a mere speck of dust in the vast continuum of space. So, on one level, this required a great deal of experimentation and innovation. Yet, there are wider implications. Asteroids are a major existential threat, as shown by previous asteroid collisions. Granted, an asteroid impact can seem outlandish, but it never hurts to be prepared. The last asteroid collision killed off 75 percent of the species on Earth and triggered one of the planet’s five great extinction events. While the chances are microscopically minuscule, even smaller asteroids can cause a significant amount of damage. In 1908, a meteor exploded near Siberia, flattening trees for over 830 square miles. Thank goodness it was Siberia, and not a dense urban area such as Los Angeles—and this meteor was only 100 feet in diameter. The collision of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter managed to make a visible dent in the planet.

The mission is tied to the success of NASA’s efforts regarding planetary surveillance. The Near-Earth Objects Program has detected 95 percent of NEOs that potentially pose danger. About two-thirds of large asteroids have been identified. The next step was to move asteroids, and this initiative succeeded after almost a year of orbit.

“We’re embarking on a new era of humankind, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous, hazardous asteroid impact,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said after the successful mission. There’s no denying there is a long way to go before major threats can be nudged aside, but this is one time where the boatloads of space investment paid off for once. So for once, let’s not redirect our investment away from planetary defense and we’ll see how the deflection pays off.