By: Zach Kershaw
Led by NASA Program Manager, Jim Snoddy, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is the first of its kind in terms of planetary defense.
Officially beginning on Nov. 24 in 2021, the DART spacecraft embarked toward a binary asteroid system roughly seven million miles away from Earth.
On Sept. 26, 2022, the mission reached its climax; a designed kinetic impact between the DART spacecraft and the target moonlet asteroid, Dimorphos.
The larger asteroid, Didymos, was discovered in 1996. In 2003, researchers noticed light curvatures while analyzing the binary system. Those curvatures were created by a smaller orbiting celestial body. That celestial body is Dimorphos.
Neither Didymos or Dimorphos pose a potential threat to the planet. Yet, NASA opted to attempt something that had previously never been done before. For the first time, humanity would intentionally alter a celestial body’s flight path.
“All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet, this mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
In this mission, NASA was able to demonstrate its capability of defending Earth from future potential impacts.
Director of Spartan Studies, Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Associate Physics professor, Dr. Ethan Deneault had several noteworthy observations about the mission.
“NASA has had many decades of experience with modeling orbital motion with a high degree of precision. It’s always nice to see those calculations pay off,” said associate professor of physics and director of Spartan Studies Ethan Deneault.
In the aftermath of the collision, NASA researchers tracked the updated orbital path of Dimorphos. Preliminary indications were that an adjusted orbital period of around 73 seconds would indicate a successful mission.
Results of the mission indicated that Dimorphos’s path of orbit saw a change in orbit of about 32 minutes. The mission resulted in a resounding success for NASA and for humanity.
“This result is one important step toward understanding the full effect of DART’s impact with its target asteroid,” said director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Lori Glaze.
The success of the DART mission is pioneering for NASA and space defense technology. But, with a budget of around 324.5 million dollars, many might ask, is DART worth it?
“Does it warrant funding? I think so. Astronomers who track near-Earth asteroids have certainly not found every one of them out there, and it would be better to be prepared for the worst than simply pray for the best,” said Deneault.
Now, DART will be called upon should the need to redirect a moving celestial body arise.
Fortunately, Earth’s atmosphere is currently the strongest defense against impacting debris and rocks.
“The Earth is impacted daily by small bits of rock and dust from space, and most of it burns up in the atmosphere from friction,” said Deneault.
While the atmosphere may be Earth’s initial protection from celestial bodies, having the ability to deflect, redirect, or at the very least, break apart asteroids could be an extremely unique and important tool for humanity to utilize.
“Even in the worst-case scenario of a large asteroid being broken up into smaller chunks that all hit the Earth, the outcome is still better than one large impact,” said Deneault.
Today, advancements in technology like the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station (ISS), and SpaceX’s reusable rockets have opened many doorways for exploration into the final frontier.
Moving forward, NASA will continue to monitor Dimorphos’s new path and log data related to kinetic impacts. This way, DART will be ready to go should a potential danger be spotted.