(Don't) Look Up! NASA's mission to stop asteroids from colliding with Earth

The DART mission
Searching for Didymos
Didymos and Dimorphos
Changing the orbit
Planetary defense
Like a Hollywood movie
Near-Earth Objects
Far from science fiction
Asteroid danger
Another asteroid, 66 millions years ago
Neil deGrasse Tyson: 'Human extinction'
Stephen Hawking: on the lookout
Trump: US Space Force
Biden: NASA budget increase
Alternative strategies for Dimorphos
It's better to have something and not need it than the other way around
Prevent the scenario of 'Don't Look Up'
The DART mission

On November 24, NASA launched its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, in a 33 million US dollars probe that might be humanity’s only hope against the threat of asteroids hitting our planet.

Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Searching for Didymos

The spacecraft, about the size of a car, will hit the moon of double asteroid Didymos at 24,000 kilometers per hour and about 11 million kilometers from Earth.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Didymos and Dimorphos

Didymos, discovered in 1996, is made up of two asteroids gravitating around the same center. It's classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid as it has orbited relatively near the Earth. Its 'moonlet', Dimorphos, was discovered in 2003.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Changing the orbit

The NASA spacecraft is planned to hit Dimorphos in September 2022. The clash is supposed to change the moonlet's orbit. Traveling along with DART, to take pictures of the event, is the spacecraft LICIA CubeSat from the European Space Agency.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Planetary defense

The main goal of this mission is to see if programs like DART can be used to deflect asteroids en route to Earth as part of an effort of planetary defense.

Image: NASA

Like a Hollywood movie

Asteroids being deflected from their course to Earth sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. We've seen it in 'Deep Impact' and 'Armageddon', and most recently in the Adam McKay satire 'Don't Look Up' with Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio.

(Image: 'Don't Look Up,' Netflix)

 

Near-Earth Objects

Near-Earth objects can be a real threat to humanity. NASA and all other space agencies around the globe hope that projects like DART might save the planet.

Pictured is the DART Control Room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

(NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Far from science fiction

Space scholar Essam Heggy told Al Jazeera that such a scenario is certainly possible. "The chances of getting hit again by an asteroid is far from science fiction. Asteroids 100 metres and greater are a threat to the Earth, and we need to quantify our deflection capability to these threats".

(In this photo, provided by NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman, the DART team is assembling the probe at Johns Hopkins APL)

Asteroid danger

Didymos itself is not a danger for Earth. However, there are over 27,000 other, known near-Earth asteroids of which 8% (over 2,200) are considered hazardous. And there is a precedent.

Another asteroid, 66 millions years ago

Looking at the dreamlike beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s hard to imagine that underneath lies the Chicxulub crater, a remainder of the asteroid that killed most life on Earth 66 million years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: 'Human extinction'

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson argued during a 2013 panel at the American Museum of Natural History that an asteroid could "[render] our civilization extinct or [disable] our civilization so that we have to jump-start all that is fundamental about it".

Stephen Hawking: on the lookout

Scientists have pointed out for years that the international community needs to be on the lookout for space objects colliding with Earth. The late physicist Stephen Hawking warned about them in his final book, 'Brief Answers to the Big Questions'.

Trump: US Space Force

When Donald Trump signed the creation of the Space Force, a new branch of the US Armed Forces, Tyson and others in the scientific community were dismayed to see that the focus was on international warfare and not on planetary defense.

Biden: NASA budget increase

Things seem to have changed with the Biden administration. The current US president has approved a NASA budget increase of over 6%, or 25 billion dollars. Among other things, the space agency will collaborate to fight the climate change crisis.

Alternative strategies for Dimorphos

If DART doesn't succeed on diverting Dimorphos, there are other strategies to change the route of asteroids. They include lasers, solar sails, mining robots, a nuclear explosion in its vicinity, or a spacecraft approaching the object in order to change its course through its (minor) gravitational force.

It's better to have something and not need it than the other way around

The most important thing is to be prepared. So far, it's been estimated that no dangerous asteroid will head towards Earth in the next 100 years. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare.

 

Prevent the scenario of 'Don't Look Up'

As NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson says: "We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to be testing this kind of capability."

(Image: Jennifer Lawrence in 'Don't Look Up,' Netflix)

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