As the mainstream media often chooses not to share information about them, there are constantly things taking place in the United States and around the world that are highly newsworthy but receive little or no attention.
One such thing occurred last week that is not only incredibly interesting, but also seems like it’s right out of a science fiction movie.
In the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 23, NASA launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the coast of California about 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Obviously, the launching of a Falcon 9 represents nothing new, as the workhorse rockets take off from multiple locations in the U.S. with amazing frequency.
But it was the payload this one was carrying that is so noteworthy: NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART.
In a unique, ground-breaking mission, NASA is attempting to determine whether a spacecraft can nudge a celestial body enough to alter its orbit. The job is assigned to a refrigerator-sized craft that will fly close to 7 million miles, hunting down a relatively small asteroid named Dimorphos before going kamikaze and crashing into it at 15,000 mph, likely next September.
For the record, Dimorphos (which is about the size of a football stadium) poses no threat to Earth and was chosen as DART’s target by members of a NASA team known as the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, whose task isn’t exploring space, but rather the defense of planet Earth.
If plans work favorably, DART’s impact will slow Dimorphos by a fraction of a millimeter per second. Scientists involved in the mission hope that’s enough that over time – in the vastness of space –the asteroid’s trajectory will be significantly changed.
A NASA official said the mission is “the first test of planetary defense” and the goal is to learn “how to deflect a threat that would come in.”
Man, planetary defense and threats coming in from space. It’s like, maybe we all need to set aside our petty differences, gear up and man our battle stations.
DART is the latest in a series of elaborate missions NASA has implemented this year, including a rover designed to look for signs of life on Mars, a small helicopter that has actually flown above the Martian surface, and the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever to orbit Earth.
By the way, the Webb unit is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990). Astronomy experts say it’s capable of looking back in time to the early days of the universe and will “show humanity things it hasn’t seen before.”
Anyway, NASA knows there are numerous rocky objects hurtling through space large enough to survive a fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere. While they’re tracked in the best way possible, NASA figures only about 40% of potentially dangerous asteroids are known.
The DART project stems from NASA’s general belief that unlike natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, humans could do something about killer asteroids since they can be detected before inflicting their devastation. And that could be crucial to our species’ survival, because an asteroid’s impact could have far-reaching – and deadly – consequences.
Of course, precedent exists, because it’s widely believed that about 65 million years ago, a six-mile wide asteroid hit where Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula now lies and wiped out much of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
Whatever the case, it will no doubt be very interesting to hear about the outcome of the DART vs. Dimorphos clash. And it occurs to me that if a DART-style intervention ever really becomes necessary, let’s hope it turns out the way the mission in “Armageddon” did, as Harry Stamper (the character played by Bruce Willis) put the final touches on an explosive ending to a planetary threat, and uttered those famous two words:
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.