At around 7pm Eastern time today, a $300M spacecraft will collide with an asteroid called Dimorphos nearly a million miles away. And it’s entirely on purpose. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is part of NASA’s planetary defense arm.
Mission scientists monitoring the DART spacecraft expect its collision with Dimorphos asteroid to transfer enough momentum to change the asteroid’s orbit by about 1%. – WSJ
There are two ways of looking at the DART Mission. On one hand, $300M seems like a lot of money to spend on one planetary defense test when it’s estimated that we could be at least a hundred years away from an extinction-level asteroid colliding with Earth. On the other hand, no amount of money is too much when we’re talking about defending against human extinction.
I fall on the former side, personally. Especially considering there are space investments (like satellite technology) that lead to concrete advances here on Earth.
There are also other theories on redirecting asteroids:
Other possible approaches include shooting asteroids with ion beams or changing their trajectories through the use of a so-called gravity tractor—a spacecraft that looms near an asteroid and exerts a gravitational pull on the space rock for an extended time. Sending a spacecraft to detonate a nuclear device near an incoming asteroid to break it up on short notice also remains an option under consideration. – WSJ
Currently, there are more than a million asteroids in varying sizes and compositions in different orbits of the sun. NASA doesn’t believe any of them will collide with Earth for over a hundred years. However, they’d like to expedite approval for the launch of the Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope, whose infrared-imaging capabilities should make it possible to spot asteroids more easily and quickly determine their sizes and trajectories.
As someone who cares deeply about long-term, future thinking I don’t want to seem uninterested in planetary defense systems. But sailing a rocket into a rock doesn’t seem like an intelligent or practical use of $300M.
The fact that NASA put out a movie trailer for the mission and is live-streaming the collision proves to me that this is equally an entertainment/marketing expense as it is a defense test. This is like the Super Bowl for nerds. And missions like these are great recruitment campaigns for Space Force, NASA, and other space agencies.
On a final side note, I was shocked to find out how little astronauts earn.
Update 10/11/22: The mission was a success.