The Angry Asteroid

Imagine you’re an asteroid, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam!

All things astronomical tend to intrigue me. I find nothing more comforting than looking up at the night sky and realizing that all my cares and concerns don’t even amount to a grain of sand on the celestial beach. I also enjoy the fact that there is still so much to learn about our universe. For me, as long as there is the potential for knowledge, life is worth living.

So imagine my joy when I learned that NASA was once again attempting something that had never been done before, and we’d be able to get an unprecedented view of their efforts. They were experimenting, for the first time, with a type of planetary defense system that, if successful, might one day save us from Armageddon in the form of an asteroid impact.

DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test was, in essence, a suicide mission for this unmanned craft. The scientists wanted to see if crashing DART into an asteroid at the speed of 14,000 miles per hour would alter said asteroid’s trajectory in any significant way.

This was an impressive feat indeed, because at the time of impact the asteroid Dimorphos was roughly 6.8 million miles away from earth. And we managed to pull off a direct hit. Granted, they were able to make a few course corrections along the way, but still, what are the odds of that?

One of the reasons for course corrections is the fact that we couldn’t even see Dimorphos until we were about an hour away from impact. Didymos, the much larger asteroid that Dimorphos orbits, was too bright to allow us to discern its little companion. It was only discovered because of radar echoes and optical light curve analysis.

To make sizes and distances more comprehensible, I asked NASA for a simile back on October 1st (really, I did), but they have yet to get back to me. If they ever do, I’ll be sure to update this post. Meanwhile, I did a little sloppy math and came up with this simile for you:

DART hitting Dimorphos at that distance and speed would be like me standing in Melbourne, Australia and throwing a walnut at a dodgeball in Odessa, Ukraine. And that walnut would have to go 18 miles per hour for a little over three weeks before its fateful crash.

Course corrections notwithstanding, that’s hardly a piece of cake. The fact that I was always last to be picked for any sports activity throughout my years in school will tell you just how improbable my success in that endeavor would be. The idea that anyone could pull off such a caper blows my mind.

I was relieved to see that it was a kinetic impact, not some sort of a bomb, like they would use to save the day in the movies. First of all, since there’d be no atmosphere, the force of an explosion would dissipate into space rather than blowing the thing to smithereens. (Think path of least resistance.) And I’d rather not launch nuclear bombs from earth, for fear that there’d be some malfunction during liftoff that we’d be regretting for centuries. And who knows what impact nuclear waste would have in space.

When I saw this footage, the impact looked like everything Hollywood tries to achieve with nuclear warheads. It was spectacular. I must confess that, while still intact, Dimorphos looked to me like a chocolate ball crusted in chopped nuts. It looked delicious.

There will probably be months of analysis before we know how effective the impact was. Apparently NASA had no idea what Dimorphos was going to look like, and the impact was bigger than they expected. Those unknowns kind of make me nervous. That inspires me to take you on a flight of fancy away from my science-loving brain and crash us right into my fiction-loving brain. Conspiracy theories are bound to follow, but remember, you heard it here first:

If we never actually saw the thing we planned to crash into until an hour previously, and the resulting impact was larger than expected, do we actually know what we have done? Yes, NASA chose an asteroid that has no chance of hitting earth, but, what if it was a living thing, minding its own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam! Or what if the Little Prince was living there? Oh, the humanity!

Either way, somebody would be pretty darned annoyed. I know that if something intentionally crashed into me or into my home, I’d be irritated and want answers. I’d be taking off my earrings, preparing to throw down.

So we better keep an eye on Dimorphos. If it suddenly goes out of orbit and starts making a beeline toward Earth, we might be in trouble, because hell hath no fury like an asteroid scorned. Or maybe its anger would have dissipated before it got here, and it would therefore just drop a shower of chocolate balls on us. You have to admit that both theories are equally plausible.

Sources:

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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

2 thoughts on “The Angry Asteroid”

  1. I’m such an astronomy geek that I had the event marked on my calendar so I could see it in real time. As I watched Dart’s long approach and listened to the scientists commentary, many of your same thoughts crossed my mind. I just hope those who worked so hard building the craft were able to hold a memorial to honor its sacrifice R.I.P. D.A.R.T.🙂. I like how N.D.T. sums up the whole mission… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnarDhb3l4A&t=314s
    Can always rely on him to put most things in proper perspective. We lost Carl but a lot of his wisdom lives on in Neil.

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