"NASA works for the benefit of humanity, so for us it's the ultimate fulfillment of our mission to do something like this--a technology demonstration that, who knows, some day could save our home."
-- NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy
What better name for this than "DART"? Of course, government being government, it had to have a longer name like Double Asteroid Redirection Test, but it ended up with a cool acronym. And the folks at NASA threw this dart perfectly.
Imagine tossing an object out of Earth's atmosphere 10 months early in order to slam into an asteroid nearly 7 million miles away. That must've taken a lot of math. And this week humanity took its first steps ever toward altering the path and motion of a celestial body. One day, we might look back on this as a time that saved us all.
The DART spacecraft, as big as a vending machine, slammed into a space rock called Dimorphos, about as big as a football stadium. The impact was minimal. But minimal is fine, just fine. For if one day NASA discovers a dangerous asteroid heading for our planet, it wouldn't take much of a nudge to push it off track. Especially if the nuisance was millions of miles away. A 1 percent change of trajectory could mean a world of difference. Emphasis on world.
All things NASA and space bring out the inner nerd in many of us. And this DART mission was only the latest.
A planetary defense system is no longer just the stuff of movies. We're doing it.
From Reuters: "DART's celestial target was an oblong asteroid 'moonlet' about 560 feet (170 meters) in diameter that orbits a parent asteroid five times larger called Didymos as part of a binary pair with the same name, the Greek word for twin. Neither object presents any actual threat to Earth, and NASA scientists said their DART test could not create a new hazard by mistake . . . . A Dimorphos-sized asteroid, while not capable of posing a planet-wide threat, could level a major city with a direct hit."
Both Dimorphos and Didymos are tiny compared with the asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs. But DART represents only a baby step. We had to have Kitty Hawk before we had Apollo 11.
So the suicide mission succeeded inasmuch as DART made impact at, oh, about 15,000 miles per hour. Whether it changed the moonlet's course is still undetermined. Folks down here will observe the asteroid now, calculate where it's heading, and whether we gave it a push in that direction.
NASA says there are about 27,500 near-Earth asteroids. That it knows of. And the agency estimates that there are many more that mankind hasn't discovered yet. One day, our astronomers down here might see something they don't like.
Then they'll sic the mathematicians and engineers on it.