DART Mission, Successful Planetary Defense Test; What’s Next

Update (October 11, 2022)

Early results are in.

Looks like the DART mission successfully shortened Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes.

As a NASA press release said: “…This marks humanity’s … first full-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology….”

Excerpt from the NASA statement:

NASA Confirms DART Mission Impact Changed Asteroid’s Motion in Space
Josh Handal, Justyna Surowiec; press release; NASA, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (October 11, 2022)

“Analysis of data obtained over the past two weeks by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) investigation team shows the spacecraft’s kinetic impact with its target asteroid, Dimorphos, successfully altered the asteroid’s orbit. This marks humanity’s first time purposely changing the motion of a celestial object and the first full-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology….

Prior to DART’s impact, it took Dimorphos 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit its larger parent asteroid, Didymos. … the investigation team has confirmed the spacecraft’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by 32 minutes, shortening the 11 hour and 55-minute orbit to 11 hours and 23 minutes. This measurement has a margin of uncertainty of approximately plus or minus 2 minutes.

“Before its encounter, NASA had defined a minimum successful orbit period change of Dimorphos as change of 73 seconds or more. This early data show DART surpassed this minimum benchmark by more than 25 times.…”
[emphasis mine]

NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab's DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) poster. (2021)

News services dialed their headlines back a bit Tuesday. But Monday’s planetary defense test was a big deal, no matter how much of a nudge it gave Dimorphos.

NASA successfully redirects asteroid NASA successfully crashes into asteroid
Natasha Zouves, Devan Markham, Kelsey Kernstine; (NewsNation)/KTLA 5 News (September 26, 2022 September 27, 2022)

“NASA successfully completed its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) on Monday, launching a spacecraft into an asteroid.

“The goal: To change the path of the asteroid, diverting it away from Earth.

“Don’t fret. There was no real threat here on Earth.

“The collision happened 7 million miles away from our planet, and the technology could someday be used to save humanity in an ‘Armageddon’ situation, according to NASA….”

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.And I haven’t seen headlines of the ‘Reckless Government Experiment Endangers Humanity as Scientists Gloat’ or ‘Big Tech Targets Asteroid! Are You Next?’ variety.

Maybe my news feed isn’t inclusive enough. Or maybe “tampering with things man was not supposed to know” lost its popular panache, somewhere between the decline of disco and the rise of rave. More to the point, history happened on Monday, September 26, 2022.1

NASA’s DART Mission Hits Asteroid in First-Ever Planetary Defense Test
Josh Handal, NASA; Justyna Surowiec / Michael Buckley, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory; Press release (September 26, 2022; Updated September 27, 2022)

“After 10 months flying in space, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – the world’s first planetary defense technology demonstration – successfully impacted its asteroid target on Monday, the agency’s first attempt to move an asteroid in space.

“Mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, announced the successful impact at 7:14 p.m. EDT.

“As a part of NASA’s overall planetary defense strategy, DART’s impact with the asteroid Dimorphos demonstrates a viable mitigation technique for protecting the planet from an Earth-bound asteroid or comet, if one were discovered.

“‘At its core, DART represents an unprecedented success for planetary defense, but it is also a mission of unity with a real benefit for all humanity,’ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. ‘As NASA studies the cosmos and our home planet, we’re also working to protect that home, and this international collaboration turned science fiction into science fact, demonstrating one way to protect Earth.’…”
[emphasis mine]

By any reasonable standard, this is a big deal. Although I still cringe when I read “unprecedented” in a press release. And that’s another topic.

How much of a big deal? That’s something we’ll learn over the next several months.

DART, Double Asteroid Redirection Test: On Target

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC's infographic: 'Spacecraft Orbit Diagram.'

Crashing into an astronomical body isn’t new.

Images sent back by DART’s camera as it flew into Dimorphos reminded me of the 1960s Ranger program: when, finally, Ranger 7 got off the pad, hit the moon and sent back pictures.

Hitting our 2,000-mile-wide moon with a five-foot-wide by 12-foot-tall spacecraft wasn’t going to change the moon’s orbit.

But this time, since Dimorphos is only a little over 500 feet across, and DART was moving very fast, scientists figure they’ve changed its orbit around Didymos.

Granted, DART only weighed 1,340 pounds, 610 kilograms — it’s a little larger than a vending machine — so it won’t have affected the orbit by much.

But astronomers have been keeping close track of the Didymos-Dimorphos pair for months. They’re reasonably sure they’ll get good numbers for how much the orbit has changed.

Dimorphos orbits Didymos about once every 12 hours. Astronomers will want observed times for many orbits, since the change may be barely measurable. We almost certainly won’t get results for a few months. They’ll want lots of timed orbits.2

And here’s a NASA news conference video, starting at 31:00/32:05, when they showed DART’s approach with a time lapse compiled from the probe’s camera.

(“NASA’s DART Mission Post-Asteroid-Impact News Briefing,” NASA (Sept. 26, 2022)

“No Real Threat”? “Potentially Hazardous Object”??

Sci-fi movie poster collage; including 'Plan 9 from Outer Space,' 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,' 'The Thing.'NASA and mainstream news coverage of the DART mission kept saying that there’s “no real threat” of this turning into something from the first reel of an old-school mad scientist film.

If editors editors had felt the urge, we might have seen far more colorful coverage.

Think “The Green Slime” meets “When Worlds Collide,” with a dash of “The Andromeda Strain.”

But, again, I haven’t seen scary ‘asteroid of doom’ headlines. I see this as good news.

On the other hand, Didymos-Dimorphos is a PHO, a potentially hazardous object and a NEO, near-Earth object. So I’m a little surprised that nobody’s sounding the alarm over NASA’s plot to destroy us all.

Not that I’ve noticed, that is; and I said surprised, not disappointed.

At any rate, Didymos-Dimprphos is a PHO because the asteroid pair’s orbit brings it almost as close to the sun as Earth: 1.0131 astronomical units.

Running a vending-machine-size robot into the pint-size portion of the pair won’t send it hurtling toward Earth.

But given time, gravitational interaction with the other 10,484 known Apollo asteroids might change the pair’s orbit so that they cross Earth’s orbit when Earth’s in that spot.

Then there are the ten thousand or so other Near-Earth objects we’ve spotted, plus everything else in the Solar System. Even if Didymos-Dimprphos never hits Earth, something else will.

Either Didymos, or Dimorphos, or both, falling out of our sky could be unpleasant. That’s why NASA, ESA and others have been planning missions like DART. I’ll get back to that.

When NASA and JPL went looking for DART target, their choices narrowed down to one.

The target had to get close enough to Earth, so that astronomers can measure its orbital period before and after impact. And still be far enough away so that the pair’s no more a threat than any other Apollo asteroid.3

Remembering Chelyabinsk, 2013, Tunguska, 1908: Asteroid Air Bursts

Doug Ellison and NASA's composite image of asteroid Dimorphos, taken by NASA's DART spacecraft shortly before impact. (September 26, 2022)
(From Doug Ellison/NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Asteroid Dimorphos, as seen by DART , shortly before impact. (September 26, 2022))

Aleksandr Ivanov's photo of the Chelyabinsk meteor's fireball, frame from a dashcam video. (February 15, 2003)Sooner or later, the Didymos-Dimorphos pair might run into Earth. How bad would that actually be?

Again, Dimorphos is a little over 500 feet across. Didymos is considerably larger: 2,625 feet, roughly a quarter-mile across.

Dimorphos is almost certainly a ‘rubble pile’ — bits and pieces of rock held together (loosely) by the pile’s (slight) gravity.

Didymos may be a rubble pile, too, which might account for its equatorial ridge. Then again, maybe it isn’t. I haven’t found anything definite on the point.

Now, let’s compare that pair to an asteroid that did run into Earth.

The object that lit up the sky over Chelyabinsk back in 2013 was about 56 feet across.

Reuters' photo: building damaged by shock wave from Chelyabinsk meteor. (2013)When its kinetic energy turned into heat and a shock wave, nobody got killed. Only a thousand or so folks were seriously injured, and no buildings were completely destroyed.

The Chelyabinsk meteor was smaller than either Didymos or Dimorphos, on a different orbit, and probably made of different stuff. So comparing the two would be an apples-to-oranges situation.

On the other hand, either Didymos or Dimorphos are a great deal bigger than thing that detonated over Chelyabinsk.

Happily, folks recognized the Chelyabinsk air burst as a natural phenomenon almost from the get-go, nobody got killed, and cleanup wasn’t much worse than major storm damage.

And the folks running Russia weren’t “demilitarizing” one of their neighbors in a “special military operation.” back in 2013.

Ideally, even if something brighter than the sun exploded over either Moscow or Kyev today, whoever’s in charge would verify that it wasn’t a nuclear bomb before launching a counter-strike. But as I keep saying, we don’t live in an ideal world.4

Tunguska, the 1490 Ch’ing-yang Event, Averages and Non-Survivors

NASA/Planetary Science's Map showing frequency of small asteroid impacts (1994-2013). (October 20, 2014
(From NASA/Planetary Science, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Objects roughly 1 to 20 meters in diameter impacting Earth’s atmosphere. (1994-2013))

Something like the Chelyabinsk event happens every few years, on average, somewhere on Earth. Only a few are newsworthy, since something like three quarters of the planet is ocean, and cities only cover a bit of the land.

Soviet Academy of Science's photo of fallen trees at Tunguska. (ca. 1927)Things like the 1908 Tunguska event are even rarer, happening on average every millennium or so.

That’s a good thing, since the blast was a thousand times more powerful than the one that punched out walls in Chelyabinsk.

I’ve given intervals between impacts as averages. Once every millennium could mean, for example, two ‘Tunguska events’ a year apart, than two millennia of just little booms.

So far, we’ve been lucky.

Apart from maybe the 1490 Ch’ing-yang event — which I gather some scholars say wasn’t properly documented — we don’t have records of a Tunguska-level event happening over a densely-populated area.

But I’m not sure that’s a comforting thought. We know about the Ch’ing-yang event because it happened in a province of China, about halfway through the Ming dynasty. The disaster affected only one part of a well-organized empire.

But for quite a bit of humanity’s history, a prosperous city-state might have been abruptly depopulated without leaving detailed records of the event.

Record-keeping, after all, requires observers and some way to record information from the observers. Today, observers could be near ground zero — and still preserve significant data before they died.

Like Robert Landsburg, who was near Mount Saint Helens when it went up.

As a pyroclastic cloud approached him, he took photos, rewound the film, put the camera in a backpack and shielded the backpack with his body. When searchers found his body, 17 days later, the film was intact.5

Asteroid Impact Avoidance, DART and Looking Ahead

NASA's 'Eyes on Asteroids' interactive real-time visualization.
(“Eyes on Asteroids“, “Real time visualization of every known asteroid or comet that is classified as a Near Earth Object (NEO).” (NASA/JPL))

Nobody had been tracking the Chelyabinsk object when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, partly because it came in from the general direction of the sun.

We’ve been finding and tracking a great many asteroids and comets since 2013, but I figure we haven’t spotted them all.

Even if astronomers did spot something like 99942 Apophis — an asteroid that’ll come close to Earth in April of 2029, but will miss us — heading for an impact in, say, 2032: we don’t have technology in place that could prevent it.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the DART mission has been a success so far, and we’ll have at least preliminary data on its effectiveness in a few months.

Maybe, by some miracle, members of the United States Congress could be convinced that the incoming asteroid wasn’t a plot by the other party: and give NASA the okay to save their lives.

We’re not the only fish in this pond, of course. Maybe the Parliament of Singapore would get the ball rolling.

In any case, I’m pretty sure that cobbling together an effective asteroid mover would involve NASA, ESA, JAXA and anyone else with tech and talent who’s living on Earth.

As it is, JAXA, the Italian Space Agency and several private aerospace companies have been involved in the DART mission.6

By the way, I recommend the NASA/JPL “Eyes on Asteroids” interactive visualization of stuff in the inner Solar System. It’s regularly updated, with fairly intuitive rotate-and-zoom controls: so it may take a while to load. But again: I recommend it.

We are Not Doomed: And We’re Learning

Scott Adams' 'Dilbert.' Dogbert's Good News Show. (April 30, 1993) used w/o permissionOne more bit of bad news, and then I’ll explain why I don’t think we’re doomed.

Right now, we’ve got a whole mess of methods for moving asteroids so that they won’t hit Earth; but we don’t know which look good on paper and will actually work.

That’s one of the reasons for the DART mission. In geek-speak, it’s a test of the kinetic impact method: basically, using Newton’s laws of motion the way we do while playing billiards. Which is a subset of cue sports, and that’s yet another topic.

Kinetic impact asteroid deflection is something we can do right now.

It’s something we have done, as of Monday, September 26, 2022.

What we don’t know yet is how much of the DART probe’s momentum transferred to the rubble pile we call Dimorphos. There’s also the question of what’s happened to Dimorphos, apart from a slight change in velocity.

Another, Hollywood-friendly, asteroid deflection method is setting off a nuclear bomb on or in the thing.7 Practical issues aside, I’m guessing this alternative will have to wait until politicos and activists are a trifle less rabid when atom bombs are in play.

Getting Ready Before the Next Tunguska Event

Deep Space Industries Fuel Harvester, artist's concept. (2012) from DSI, used w/o permissionSkipping over esoteric tech like ion beams, laser ablation and gravity tractors — that last isn’t, or isn’t quite, science fiction’s “tractor beam” and might be practical, someday — I think Deep Space Industries was on the right track, with their proposed asteroid mining systems.

On the right track, but decades to maybe a century ahead of the curve. Bradford Space acquired Deep Space Industries in 2019. Bradford Space has been focusing on logistics and components that folks need now.8

The good news is that NASA, ESA and a great many other organizations and individuals have been cooperating; tracking objects that might hit Earth, and working the bugs out of tech that can keep us from learning what a Tunguska event looks like when a city’s under the blast.

This is a good time for that sort of research and development: before we spot an asteroid headed our way.

We Can Develop the Technology: But Should We Use It?

Italian Space Agency's image of Dimorphos, taken by their LICIACube spacecraft a few minutes after the DART impact. (September 26, 2022)
(From ASI/NASA, via NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Asteroid Dimorphos a few minutes after the DART impact. (September 26, 2022))

ISA’s LICIACube CubeSat, a miniature spacecraft that had been riding with the DART mission, sent back that image a few minutes after DART hit Dimporphos.

Scientists will be analyzing, comparing, debating and learning from images like that and other data: for years, most likely. As I said earlier, we’re learning.

I think we will have the tech needed to keep rocks like the one that detonated over Chelyabinsk from hurting folks: before something like that happens over another city. Probably.

Again, although we’re getting a handle on how often on average impacts of a given size happen: that doesn’t tell us when mountains will fall out of the sky.

The odds are better that we’ll be ready in time to prevent another Tunguska event.

USGS/D. Roddy's photo of the Barringer Crater (2015)And we have, probably, quite a long time before something the size of the Canyon Diablo meteorite blows a kilometer-wide hole somewhere on our home.9

But, and maybe this is a no-brainer, but: is it right to try keeping folks from being killed?

Now, since I’ve noticed no recent religious objections to weather forecasts or lightning rods, I’m guessing that most folks have gotten over the notion that we should let disasters happen.

Dominion, Responsibility, and Incoming Asteroids

March 15, 1915: Billy Sunday giving another rip-roaring performance.On the other hand, folks still do express odd notions: sometimes in my culture’s traditional style, sometimes the same old song with updated lyrics.

“…’It’s scary. It’s this new language that’s forming — I don’t even recognize,’ she said. ‘It’s scary to know, it’s been proven through science, that climate change is due to human activity. And we continue to ignore it, and the only voice we have is through voting,’ Lawrence said. After Long said the American public had recently voted and selected Trump, who has denied the existence of climate change in the past, Lawrence said the result was “startling.’
”’You’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s hard — especially while promoting this movie, not to feel Mother Nature’s rage and wrath,’ she said….”
(“Jennifer Lawrence calls hurricanes ‘Mother Nature’s rage and wrath’,” Entertainment Weekly (September 8, 2017))

“… There was the burgeoning Gulf Coast gambling industry, with a new casino that was to open on Labor Day weekend. But of course, what is a little gambling if it supports ‘education’ and brings revenue into government coffers? And then there was the 34th Annual gay, lesbian and transgender ‘Southern Decadence’ Labor Day gala to be held from August 31st to September 5th….”
(“Katrina: God’s Judgment on America” Anonymous; Restore America, via Beliefnet (2005))

“I have read in the Philosophical Transactions the account of the effects of lightning on St. Bride’s steeple. ‘Tis amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you had given, of the identity of lightning and of electricity, and the power of metalline conductors, they should ever think of repairing that steeple without such conductors. How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free enquiry!”
(Letter, To Benjamin Franklin from John Winthrop, 6 January 1768, via founders.archives.gov)

Religious scruples regarding “metalline conductors” — lightning rods — is something that’s taken on a life of its own over the last two and a half centuries, and that’s yet again another topic, for another day.

I don’t see a problem with using our brains or saving lives, partly because I’m a Catholic.

First, I think we have dominion over this world. (Genesis 1:26, 2:58)

And since I’m a Catholic, I realize that our dominion doesn’t mean we can do whatever we like with our home.

Our “dominion” means having the authority and responsibility that comes with one of our jobs: taking care of this world and leaving it in good condition for future generations. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 16, 339, 356-358, 2402, 2415-2418, 2456)

And I figure that includes keeping an eye out for falling mountains, and developing the tech needed to nudge them aside when necessary.

I was going to talk about DART’s autonomous navigation system, ESA’s follow-up mission, and what we’ll be learning about asteroids. But I’ve run out of time this week.

Meanwhile, here’s vaguely-related stuff:

1 An asteroid and last century’s music:

2 NASA’s DART mission, background:

3 Science and three science fiction flicks:

4 Miscellany:

5 Disasters and data:

6 Asteroids and agencies:

7 Newton’s laws of motion and a Michael Bay film:

8 Looking ahead:

9 Science and technology, research and development:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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