I’m not going to lie, I love space and I’m a fan of astronomy. I go to a lot of museums and I’m pretty sure I have the largest collection of space-related audiobooks that you can’t find in a museum. I’m always looking forward to new and upcoming space missions because I think it’s fascinating to watch the things we know get more and more refined. But when I heard NASA were planning to send a spacecraft to smash into a big asteroid they had spotted that was threatening us, I went completely CRAZY.
On Saturday, October 27th at 9:20 pm ET, NASA launched a spacecraft called DART in their unmanned rocket’s sky. That is right – we are headed towards a collision course with a potentially world destroying rock. The asteroid is now called 17473 Bennu and at 235 meters long it is about the size of an American football field (at least that’s how big it was in 1908). The question on all of our minds is, just how much of this thing can NASA get off it?
On November 2nd and 3rd the spacecraft will use a giant acoustic cannon to ram up against the asteroid at 3-4 meters per second. The impact will knock a lot of dirt and rock off of the surface that will help to clean Bennu’s surface. The goal is to study how it responds to the collision.
The final step is a hop/jiggle/slap/yank event to move the spacecraft back to Earth and complete the mission. Check out the video below for a first look of the vehicle entering into space!
So there you have it. WOW! Did you get enough out of that? Now let’s say the impact was a little less than 1 meter. This is still powerful enough to create millions of small craters on the surface, and DART will not get the full amount of impact energy it was going for.
How much of this mission was planned? According to a report in Forbes, “NASA’s price tag is a projected $919 million over the next seven years, and all of that money comes from NASA’s asteroid redirect mission, another program designed to test technologies for mining a potential asteroid.”
The launch was successfully done, but a closer look at the video reveals that while the particle impact was violent it didn’t do the thing we thought it was going to do. According to Astronomy magazine, “After 35 minutes of acceleration, DART’s parachute only deployed half way. The reason why the actual impact was less shocking than we’d hoped is that it was less successful than the missile attack. The supersonic parachute did not deploy at all until 3 minutes and 34 seconds after launch. Why wasn’t this broken up into several smaller parachutes at once? The engineers say it’s because the small, smaller particle gets caught at the tip of the parachute and the whole thing would likely shatter.”
So while the spacecraft is safe it’s unclear if it achieved its goal of moving Bennu along in the direction we want it to go, or at least slowing its decay to the point where it’s no longer a threat. Let’s hope it made a dent at least.
Read more about the mission and its place in history here.