We’ve heard about it in science-fiction media for decades; the threat of a space rock slamming into the Earth and killing us all. The defense we have against it? Firing a rocket or missile of some sort into space, slamming into the incoming object, hopefully diverting it onto another path. It’s almost like the idea behind “Armageddon” except without trying to blow up the rock, no Bruce Willis, no powerfully awful Aerosmith song, and no Michael Bay. But as much as that plan has been talked about, it was never really tested; until now.
On Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021 (or Wednesday if you’re on the east coast), NASA and SpaceX fired their first DART rocket into space. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test was set for approximately 12:30 a.m. EST, 9:30 p.m. PST. The destination of the rocket was aimed at a small moon named Dimorphos.
Neither it, or the asteroid it orbits, Didymos, poses a current threat to Earth. Of course the ultimate irony would be if somehow this test actually knocked Dimorphos into our planet… but let’s just assume that’s not going to happen. And to be fair, NASA actually already planned for that. One of the whole reasons they’re targeting Dimorphos is because of its orbit around Didymos. Because it’s in orbit already, the aim of the test would be to effectively divert its orbit, not push it from it.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said of the mission:
“DART is turning science fiction into science fact and is a testament to NASA’s proactivity and innovation for the benefit of all. In addition to all the ways NASA studies our universe and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this test will help prove out one viable way to protect our planet from a hazardous asteroid should one ever be discovered that is headed toward Earth.”
It’s not just NASA involved in this project either. As is fitting for a project that is aiming to protect the world itself from destruction, other countries have become involved in the DART launch, including Italy. While the Italian Space Agency is entering into its first deep space mission with this, its no less important of a job they’re undertaking. The Italian Space Agency will be providing a CubeSat, or companion cube satellite, that will help record the effects of the DART impact, three minutes after contact. It will also give you a chance to insert a joke about “Portal” right now, because it’s a companion cube.
“At its core, DART is a mission of preparedness, and it is also a mission of unity,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This international collaboration involves DART, ASI’s LICIACube, and ESA’s Hera investigations and science teams, which will follow up on this groundbreaking space mission.”
Also involved is the European Space Agency and their own project, Hera. Three years after this mission, Hera will fly past Dirmorphos to get a better indication of its orbit and how its changed in the time since DART. The multi-faceted elements of this go to show just how important this entire project is for preparing the world against what could be an extinction-level event, should it ever come to be.
The successful launch was aired live on NASA’s website, as well as the space agency’s YouTube. The Falcon 9 was successfully recovered, too.
Maybe this time they’ll even be able to save Springfield.