Asteroids have entered collective imagination as objects of inexorable destruction; now, they might not be any longer. NASA carried out a mission to deflect an asteroid, and it seems like it worked. Armageddon might have to wait.
There are images that exit the television screen and enter our reality to become a part of collective imagination. That of Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis in the cult movie “Armageddon,” as they embark on a mission to save the planet, forms part of that category.
Interestingly, their efforts could have been unnecessary. During the chaotic situation our world finds itself in, little attention relevance has been given to the completion of NASA’s new probe mission: on September 26, 2022, the DART spacecraft was sent to intentionally collide with an asteroid, Dimorphos, to attempt to redirect its course. In NASA’s words, “this marks humanity’s first time purposely changing the motion of a celestial object and the first full-scale demonstration of asteroid deflection technology.” But for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, a simple attempt is not enough. The project had set the objective to alter the orbit time of Dimorphos with respect to its parent asteroid by at least 73 seconds. Measurements show that, most likely, the alteration lies at 32 minutes, or 25 times the expected value. This stunning result suggests that NASA is truly getting ready for “whatever the universe throws at us.”
Nonetheless, asteroid collisions like those that supposedly exterminated dinosaurs are not as common as we might imagine. For an impact to be disastrous, the size of the asteroid would have to be around 0.25 miles and impacts like these occur on average once every 1000 centuries. What is more common (or relatively so), are impacts of smaller asteroids that can create limited damage but not pose a threat to humanity. Yet, despite their low probability, severe collisions do still occur, and the consequences may be devastating, so NASA’s operations are of utmost importance.
But what are asteroids, exactly? According to space.com, they are rocky objects that have a mass much smaller than that of planets and their composition is mostly unknown (mainly because, thankfully, no large asteroid has struck Earth in quite some time). Most probably, they are made up of clay, silicate materials, and iron. When an asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, it is known as a meteorite. Some speculate that in the future, businesses could be born from the extrapolation of precious minerals in asteroids, but this venture is still far from being possible.
Although asteroids are seen as carriers of destruction, one of the explanations for the presence of water on our planet is that asteroid impacts may have brought water to our planet. At the same time, the frequent impacts earlier on in the history of the universe impeded life from forming before the solar system had stabilized. Hence, asteroids might have had a fundamental role in the existence of our species!
After the formation of a habitable Earth, though, their potential usefulness has exhausted its purpose. Asteroids remain a threat, hence why programs such as NASA’s are vital for our safety in the future. Now that asteroids can be deflected, they pose a smaller threat to our civilization. Or do they? It is worth noting that while this mission was successful, it worked in a controlled environment and its measurements are still being carried out. In other instances, or with different asteroids, it might not work. Successes like these are therefore a powerful reminder that technology has allowed for unthinkable improvements in our daily lives and chances of survival, but also that it is very human to fall into a pit of hubris; historically, this feeling has been devastating for emperors and heroes alike. So, without undermining the importance of this milestone, we must recall that many pressing challenges await, and space remains a perilous, unknown realm.