With the war in Ukraine, the spiraling cost of living crisis, and petty disagreements already bubbling over Strictly, there’s plenty to worry about right now.
But as we all know, if that’s not one thing, that’s another, and now we’re suddenly inundated with stories of asteroid disasters.
An asteroid — crashing into Earth? Forget the economy. We would be annihilated. In smoke. Lost forever with the poor old dinosaurs. We’ve all seen the disaster movies about the end of the world. Even a small asteroid can wipe out an entire country.
That’s why at 12:14 p.m. sharp this morning, when most of us were curled up in bed, an extraordinary drama was unfolding seven million miles away in space. The world’s first planetary defense test mission. An extraordinary galactic space battle.
On one side was the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or Dart – a £300m probe that is 19m (62ft) long and weighs half a ton.
On the other was Dimorphos. A large asteroid (a mass of space rock, as opposed to a comet, which is a mixture of ice, rock and gas), it measures 163 m (530 ft) in diameter and is currently orbiting an asteroid much bigger, Didymos (780 m or 2,560 ft). ), once every 11 hours and 55 minutes.
The big moment — the culmination of an epic mission beginning last November when it blasted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from an Air Force base in California — was expected shortly after. midnight.
The Dart – piloted for the last part of its journey by software and thrusters, and powered by large solar panels – would smash its target, almost head-on, at around 15,000 miles per hour.
The impact would completely destroy the probe and, fingers crossed, push Dimorphos off course enough to tighten its orbit around Didymos to once every 11 hours and 45 minutes.
In the meantime, a LICIACube – a specialized Italian camera released a few days ago from the probe – would record the moment of “deep impact” 31 miles back and transmit the images to Earth. At least that was the plan.
Or, as Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, astronomer and member of the Nasa Dart survey team at Queen’s University Belfast, put it: “It’s a very complicated game of cosmic pool. What we want to do is use as much energy [as we can] of Dart to move the asteroid.
By the time you read this, it will either have worked, and Dimorphos will have been redirected, its trajectory forever changed, and the Dart reduced to dust.
Or it won’t. The Dart will be God knows where and the Dimorphos will swirl happily in its home orbit.
NASA’s DART successfully impacted the asteroid Dimorphos on Monday at 7:14 p.m. ET. This is the first planetary defense test and it could be used to save the Earth
But before you start freaking out, hugging your loved ones, and channeling your best Bruce Willis into the 1998 asteroid disaster movie Armageddon, take a breath.
Because Dimorphos was a big chunk of rock that was never going to hit Earth. Far. It never posed any danger to us. It was just a very expensive experiment to see if devastating asteroids can be thrown off course if they’re heading straight for us. But a very important experience.
Many asteroids could hit us, which means experts usually talk about when rather than if.
Indeed, while scientists have identified more than 95% of the monsters that would wipe us all out, there are still plenty of smaller ones roaring – barely a third of the 28,000 asteroids with a diameter of at least 140m (460 feet) were spotted.
(It doesn’t help that the smaller the asteroid, the dimmer it glows and the harder it is to spot until it’s closer to Earth.)
Even the smallest of them are probably big enough to knock out Belgium, Wales or London. And the relatively small Dimorphos could easily create a crater over a mile wide, 200m (650ft) deep and cause intense damage for miles.
It all sounds rather dark.
However, unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, the advantage here is that we have advance warning of asteroids hurtling towards us at 20 miles per second.
Thanks to the epic distances they travel, we have years, decades, even centuries, of notice of an impending strike.
“Hollywood and the movies, they have to make it exciting,” NASA planetary defense officer Dr. Lindley Johnson explained last week. “You know, they find the asteroid only 18 days before impact and everyone is running like it’s on fire.”
Not that there hasn’t been a lot of actual drama on the asteroid front. It was in the 1980s when scientists realized an asteroid was responsible for the 112-mile-wide Chicxulub crater off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which later killed off all non-avian dinosaurs.
And over the millennia we’ve been properly battered by flying debris, with nearly 200 impact craters discovered worldwide as evidence.
The Tunguska event of 1908 was the last time the Earth was hit by a large meteor 76 m (250 ft) in diameter. Miraculously, he landed in Siberia, where he destroyed 80 million trees and killed a huge number of reindeer, but escaped civilization. A few hours later, he would have annihilated Saint Petersburg.
In 1999, a 130m (427ft) asteroid – big enough to wipe out a city – approached just 45,000 miles from Earth – barely a fifth of the distance from the Moon, far too close for the comfort. And just two years ago, an asteroid known as 1998 OR2 and as big as a mountain, passed just 3.9 million miles away, in what NASA called a “close approach.”
This is why, all over the world, scientists are constantly looking for new asteroids. And why the Dart plan is so important.
It won’t be easy. As NASA mission program scientist Tom Statler said at the press conference last week: “Dimorphos is a tiny asteroid. We’ve never seen it up close, we don’t know what it looks like, we don’t know what its shape is. And that’s just one of the things that leads to Dart’s technical challenges. Hitting an asteroid is a difficult thing to do. If, fingers crossed, this epic plan worked, it’s not just about knocking the asteroid off course, but finding out more about it.
What type of rock is it, if it is magnetic enough to be moved by other methods, and how badly it was damaged by the collision.
The camera will take pictures of the impact as it happens and send back images, but scientists will also be able to track what happens by telescope from Earth and, four years later, by another satellite, Hera, which is to be launched in 2024 by the European Space Agency.
If this mission is successful, it will be a massive breakthrough. An extraordinary feat for NASA. A big step for humanity. And yes, a worry on our huge list of worries. And you never know, it might even herald the end of the doomsday asteroid disaster movies.