By James Bernstein
One of the most popular movies about the apocalyptic notion of a giant meteor striking Earth and destroying civilization was “Deep Impact,” a 1998 disaster film in which a high school student and a scientist discover that a huge rock from outer space is headed right toward our world.
A space crew is sent to destroy it with nuclear weapons, but succeeds only in blasting it in half, and winds up sacrificing their lives to destroy the larger half with their remaining bombs, saving Earth and its inhabitants.
In the real world, of course, nothing so dramatic has ever happened. But on Sept. 26, NASA successfully gave an asteroid a punch in the nose, knocking it off course. The asteroid posed no threat to Earth. NASA just wanted to test its capability to send an unmanned spacecraft, in a mission called DART, for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to make contact with a rock in space and set it off course.
Just in case the real thing ever happens, and we are faced with the possibility of extinction from beyond.
The asteroid Dimorphos was about 7 million miles from Earth. DART was launched last November, tasked with flying out to the asteroid, which has a diameter of about 560 feet, and crashing into it at about 14,000 miles per hour. The purpose of the test was to see if DART’s impact could push Dimorphos a bit off its orbit.
It worked. The test succeeded beyond NASA’s expectations.
“For the first time ever, humanity has changed the orbit of a planetary body,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement after the test.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson added, “This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us. NASA has proven we are serious as a defender of the planet.”
And there is no question the planet needs defense. In December 2019, Congress established the U.S. Space Force, the first new branch of the armed forces in 73 years. The members of Congress believed the defense of space was a national security imperative, not only because of the possibility of hostile missile attacks, but also the chances of the planet being struck by a massive space boulder.
We now have the capability to see deeper into space than ever before, with the launch in 2021 of the James Webb Space Telescope, which conducts infrared astronomy. The Webb is the largest optical telescope in space, and its high resolution and sensitivity give it the ability to see objects too old, distant or faint to be detected by the older Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.
While NASA is to be congratulated for its success with DART, we here on Earth should not become complacent that all such dangers from space objects can be handled so easily. No one is talking about Armageddon from space, and the notion of a manned space vehicle smashing into a meteor remains the stuff of Hollywood. But some experts are cautiously hopeful that NASA and the Space Force continue to seek ways of looking out for dangerous objects out there. The sooner they are seen, the better our chances of destroying them.
“We do now track a majority of the larger ones,” said Andy Parton, president of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. “We have the capability of using bigger space vehicles than DART” to do battle with meteors. “But we must also remember this was a small test, and just a test at that.”
No one should forget the 66-foot Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded in the atmosphere over the southern Ural region of Russia in 2013, causing a bright flash and a hot cloud of dust and gas. The meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere undetected because its radiant, or source direction, was close to the sun. The blast caused extensive ground damage, and about 1,000 people sought medical attention.
As Parton said, “Somebody should always be watching.”
James Bernstein is editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? Jbernstein@liherald.com.