back to article NASA boffins seem to think we're worth saving from fiery asteroid death so they're shooting a spaceship at one

NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's (APL) Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is under way following a successful launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9. It was the third flight for this particular booster, and launch was from Vandenberg Space Launch Complex in California at 0620 UTC. The booster went on …

  1. Potemkine! Silver badge
    Joke

    To be clear, Didymos and Dimorphos do not pose a threat to Earth

    They don't pose a threat yet. That may change after the impact.

    1. Timbo Bronze badge

      You are assuming that the DART guidance system actually works correctly and actually gets to it's target.

      Of course it's REAL target could be a nice shiny Russian or Chinese satellite currently minding it's own business...(or even eavesdropping on other businesses ;-) )

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Happy

      Impacts are not always bad

      Had the Earth not been struck 50 million years ago we would probably never have evolved, back then we were just furry little balls crawling around on the surface trying to steal the dinosaurs eggs and without the impact we would never have been more than a meal. That asteroid impact lead to our evolution and lots of birds flying around so I think that it was very nice!

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: Impacts are not always bad

        Yeah but the next impact will be a lot less nice for us.

        Best we avoid that.

        1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

          Re: Impacts are not always bad

          LOL Pascal, I don't disagree with you, certainly a huge impact could turn the world into a snowball again but a relatively small impact might fix our current climate change issues by causing a temperature drop for the next 100 years and could have the effect of making every nation start to work together to create a better and safer world for the entire human race, not just one country. The threat of an impact should be making us think that we are a world in space, not just a collection of idiots in one country that thinks that they are so much smarter than every other country (I see that criticism as applying to every country not one or another).

          On the other hand, we haven't had a really bad volcanic eruption for thousands of years, one bad eruption might be worse than an average asteroid sized impact and there's a fair bit of evidence that climate change threatens a classic huge volcanic eruption.

          1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

            On the other hand, we haven’t had a really bad volcanic eruption for thousands of years

            The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was bad enough — there’s a reason that 1816 was called “the year without a summer” in Europe and North America.

          2. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge
            Trollface

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            If the small impact is over Washington or London, it may be enough to revert climate change...

            1. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

              Re: Impacts are not always bad

              Better idea, can the asteroid (or large rock) splinter and hit all political centers?

              1. Alan Brown Silver badge

                Re: Impacts are not always bad

                check out https://craterhunter.wordpress.com/ for an idea of what may happen if an asteroid or comet splinters and a series of airbursts results. It's his hypothesis for what sterilised North America and caused the Younger Dryas

          3. Unicornpiss

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            "..and could have the effect of making every nation start to work together to create a better and safer world for the entire human race"

            While the nearly dead idealistic part of me would hope that would occur, what would likely happen is the survivors would squabble over the remaining habitable zones and resources, up to and including using nuclear weapons and making the planet even less habitable. Even an event that should be survivable could easily be an extinction-level event with our current attitudes, and would at the very least likely set us back 100+ years as a species.

            </pessimism>

          4. Jaybus

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            Well, there is evidence that the Chicxubu impact actually triggered the supervolcanoes that occurred at roughly the same time. Something like a bullet striking a melon. So, no reason we can't have both at the same time.

        2. idiot taxpayer here again

          Re: Impacts are not always bad

          @Pascal Monett

          The next time won't matter to humans. We will have killed our species (and others) with global warming at the very least. Not to mention the forthcoming gas wars, oil wars, water wars, food wars, e.t.c.. Always assuming that a virus doesn't finish us off first.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            "Not to mention the forthcoming gas wars, oil wars, water wars, food wars, e.t.c.. Always assuming that a virus doesn't finish us off first."

            And yet, every time some or all of the above are predicted, we dodge the bullet. Look at the Club of Rome predictions. We're already dead according to them.

            1. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

              Re: Impacts are not always bad

              Don't forget drowned in the 125m sea level rise predicted a few years back

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Impacts are not always bad

                Your time is coming, don't worry.

                I have patience, you have short carbon-based lives.

            2. KarMann Silver badge
              Facepalm

              Re: Impacts are not always bad

              So, by that logic, I'm immortal. I've never died yet, not even once. Thanks for that!

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Impacts are not always bad

                No, I'm just saying look closely at what is being predicted and how they are predicting it. A linear progression based on relatively short term trends, such what the Club Of Rome model did, can be highly misleading. Many of the wilder predictions we get about climate change are being predicted ion the same way because the people pushing them have their own agenda. Climate change is real, it's not good, we need to do stuff to mitigate it, but just be careful of who we listen to and what we do so we don't waste time on the wrong stuff.

      2. jason_derp Silver badge

        Re: Impacts are not always bad

        "Had the Earth not been struck 50 million years ago we would probably never have evolved"

        Well, you convinced me. Asteroid impacts can have horrible, unintended consequences. Best we be careful, then.

        1. Muscleguy Silver badge

          Re: Impacts are not always bad

          Not the only issue. Both the eruption of the Siberian and Deccan traps triggered mass extinctions. The Siberian ones did the Late Permian, one of the biggest. That gave us the Dinosaurs etc

          Though there’s a school of thought which thinks a large impactor on the other side of the globe might trigger flood basalt eruptions by cracking the crust there. A search is on to find evidence of it. Last I looked nothing. Ditto the Deccan Traps.

          1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
            Happy

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            True - I think that it's fascinating that we discuss whether or not there might be life in the rest of the universe yet when we look at our worlds history it's clear that most of our worlds life has been almost completely removed multiple times in the distant past but it has always just sprung back again ...

            1. NXM

              Re: Impacts are not always bad

              Like that gloop at the back of our fridge. Whatever you do it always comes back.

            2. AnonEMusk Noel

              Re: Impacts are not always bad

              Life is tenacious enough to carry on one way or another. The human race? Not so much.

              And though i happily admit to being ill informed as to how monumental task it may be, i am an advocate of mankind colonising other planets to ensure it's survival.

          2. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Impacts are not always bad

            "The Siberian ones did the Late Permian, one of the biggest"

            The end game of the late Permian was blowouts of methane clathrate beds driving atmospheric CO2 levels past 800ppm, resulting in global acid raid that killed off most land vegetation (and massive erosion), with most land animal life folllowing shortly afterwards, whilst the acidified seas killed off most plankton and shell forming oganisms (unable to form shells) which resulted in collapses of marine food chains.

            This was folllowed by "red tides on steroids" (which form most of the easy oil deposits we've been burning) and atmospheric oxygen plummeted to 11%, staying there for tens of thousands of years

            When the kneepoint was hit it went "instantaneously" in geologicaly terms. The rocks show life striggling a little (declining biodiversity etc) for a few tens of thousands of years and then BAM! - it's like Nature hit an "off switch" - the final mass extinction event played out in less than a decade, possibly less than 18 months

            People can move away from rising sea levels. It's harder to move away from declining oxygen levels. A decline to 17% would restrict the habitable zone down to about 1500 feet above sea level and deny us/most mammals the interior of most continents). A decline to 11% is unsurvivable and we would end up drowning in our own lungs (a most unpleasant way to die)

            An asteroid strike in the wrong location could cause this - Chixulub did it to an already stressed planet 65 million years ago by hitting a shallow sea underlain by 20km of limestone. Or we could simply do what the Siberian traps did 250 millions years ago and warm up those methane clathrate deposits.

            Our climate is remarkably similar to what existed back then and ironically it's off the north coast of Siberia where methane clathrate deposits have been seeping out to the surface since 2004 (Leptav sea continental shelf). What's coming out _now_ is minor, but what comes up leaves holes and destabilises what's still down there - about 20GT by most estimates. All it takes is an earthquake to rattle things and life could get interesting in the Arctic circle (there are lots of methane clathrate deposits and blowouts have happened in the past. "Storegga Slides" raised global temperatures 1-2C 9000 years ago, raised sea levels 100m in a couple of hundred years and inundated what's now the North Sea in a 1000 foot high Tsunami)

            Humans tend to act when shit and fan start partying, but there's a strong possiblity we may end up acting too late this time

      3. Aussie Doc Bronze badge
        Joke

        Re: Impacts are not always bad

        You obviously haven't met my neighbours.

    3. Phones Sheridan Bronze badge
      Pint

      I'm not pished!!!

      Let's hope they don't top it, ripping it into the felt and then that asteroid is off the table and into somebody's pint of beer!

      1. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

        Re: I'm not pished!!!

        Nah - Lister is a better player than that

  2. tip pc Silver badge
    Alien

    Shame to see Bruce & Clint go,

    Shame to see those ageing Hollywood actors go but it’s not like there wasn’t a couple of documentaries that charted their future.

    1. Timbo Bronze badge

      Re: Shame to see Bruce & Clint go,

      Well - Richard (Duvall) and Tommy (Lee Jones) didn't come back, but Clint did !

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But perhaps

    we could send Ben Affleck along, just for good measure. (And to prevent further encroachments of utter mediocrity on the Batman universe)

    1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

      Re: But perhaps

      Affleck was actually quite good as Batman, it's the script that was awful. I'd quite happily see him in another film where they spend actual money on the plot and script rather than special effects.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        Re: But perhaps

        You're all thinking it wrong. We need to send our best negotiators. Donald, Boris, Patel, Gove, Mogg....

  4. m4r35n357

    Hollywood Fantasists

    Hilarious to think people really believe we can solve this "problem" with guns! (_if_ we detect it in time, and _if_ it is small enough, and _if_ it is still far enough away, and _if_ we can still see it . . . etc.)

    Even funnier is people thinking we can "just" blow stuff like this up.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Hollywood Fantasists

      As usual you have forgotten the troll icon but I would be very interested in any valid researched reasons why this may not have an effect.

      At least NASA are doing some research and I daresay have probably modeled some likely outcomes just to see if the DART mission could end in tears.

      The extended longevity of so many of NASA's missions is not down to solely blind luck, they tend to think a bit before acting.

    2. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

      Re: thinking we can "just" blow stuff like this up.

      They are not blowing anything up. They are giving one rock (which is in orbit around another, larger rock) a tiny nudge to see how it is affected. *IF* it is affected, the small rock will stay in orbit around the larger one, but just be in a slightly different orbit.

      From my (admittedly limited) reading, even the "nuke it" options are usually intended to slightly alter trajectories, rather than being about turning the target into an expanding cloud of space gravel.

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: thinking we can "just" blow stuff like this up.

        the REAL test is actually HITTING the moving asteroid moon in the right spot.

        (that's one HELL of a shot, right? Any sniper would envy THAT one!)

    3. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Hollywood Fantasists

      Why wouldn't it work? F=ma and E=1/2*mv^2 tells us that it does. All other outside influences eliminated hitting something heavy with something much lighter moving at a high relative velocity will change the velocity vector of the heavy thing. What is being demonstrated here is just how efficient such a high velocity impact will be, and that the technology required to find such a target in the vast emptiness of space, rendezvous with it and precisely target the impact works. The math on WHY it works is simple. The technology to actually do so is far from trivial.

      1. Swarthy Silver badge

        Re: Hollywood Fantasists

        "Rocket Science isn't that hard - It's Rocket Engineering that's a bitch!"

    4. m4r35n357

      Re: Hollywood Fantasists

      To those who reply without reading, I never said this wouldn't be successful. I am commenting on why they are doing it, and how pointless it is considering all the ifs (I only suggested a few obvious ones). Oh never mind . . .

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Hollywood Fantasists

        We're getting better and better at detecting NEOs and are working on solving a lot of the other ifs. We'd never get anything done if we take into account all the ifs.

        1. m4r35n357

          Re: Hollywood Fantasists

          I'd like to see you present a cost-benefit analysis for something that is unlikely to happen, but if it does, we have a 1 in 10^-12 chance that it is in the "goldilocks" speed & mass range, amongst all the other stuff.

          Yeah, I know the physics.

          You can't cheat Death from the Skies! It is bad psychology to expend effort pointlessly.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Hollywood Fantasists

            …we have a 1 in 10^-12 chance….
            So, a trillion-in-one chance of getting it right, then? Sounds good to me!

            1. Swarthy Silver badge

              Re: Hollywood Fantasists

              Sooo...90% chance of success?

          2. imanidiot Silver badge
            WTF?

            Re: Hollywood Fantasists

            Understanding how to do it on something "small" and "light" (at approximately 160 to 170 meters diameter and a mass of 2170+/-350 kg, I'd prefer it not to land on my house) means we also have much better understanding on how to potentially do it on something much larger, heavier and faster.

            I still don't understand why you think this is pointless. Generating understanding and data on this is a useful tool for understanding asteroids, our universe and for pushing the boundaries on what we can do to save our planet in the unhappy case we ever find something hurtling towards us. Yes, it'll have a good chance of blindsiding us like it did the dinosaurs, but I'd prefer if these boffins did their best to come up ways to give us a sliver of a chance. I won't be losing any sleep over the possibility of it happening, but it's good that the efforts are made.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Hollywood Fantasists

        "I am commenting on why they are doing it, and how pointless it is considering all the ifs"

        Considering all the "ifs" is why they are doing it. That's who science works. Postulate a hypothesis and then do experiments to generate data for a possible theory.

    5. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Hollywood Fantasists

      "Even funnier is people thinking we can "just" blow stuff like this up."

      It's generally accepted in the science community now that asteroids are mostly fluffy rubble piles which will just react like a giant feather pillow to any kind of impactor we can throw at them (either having it pass straight through, or simply puffing out slightly and reforming shortly afterwards)

      The problem is that POLITICIANS need to have it demonstrated so they stop thinking it's a feasible option

      In all likelihood they still wont get it until a couple of airbursting bolides seriously destroy stuff on the ground without anything actually impacting (Tunguska, Chelyabinsk)

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Hollywood Fantasists

        The idea isn't to destroy the object or necessarily to move the entire rubble pile in one go. But if we can impact the asteroid early enough, even if it "blows apart" the collective trajectory of the rubble (before or after coalescing again will have moved enough to miss earth. The idea isn't to intercept and deflect an asteroid on a straight line impact course for earth just a few thousand km above our atmosphere, because that's likely beyond the realm of physics. The idea is that we can detect an asteroid that will impact earth one or two orbits later and deflect it before it passes through a "keyhole" where a minimum amount of deflection will already sent it on a widely different orbit.

  5. John Robson Silver badge

    Let's see what damage is done to diddymoon.

    Be interesting to see how solid a body it is, or if it's just a loosely bound bunch of gravel.

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: Let's see what damage is done to diddymoon.

      or if it's just a loosely bound bunch of gravel.

      I get the impression that it may be merely a huge heap of low density pumice, given that the only small asteroids explored to date (Ryugu and Bennu) turned out to be loosely assembled rock piles. Even the boulders on Bennu's surface were light and fragile, judging by the way they were moved about by the low velocity impact and airblast of Osiris-Rex's sampling touch and go maneuver.

      Its also noticeable that the only bigger asteroids visited so far (Eros, Vesta and Ceres) seemed to be rather more solid, with NEAR's landing on Eros showing what looks like a rather more compacted surface.

      This all makes me wonder if DART may simply fly through the moonlet, with the shock of the collision turning the latter into a rapidly dispersing cloud of disintegrating pieces of low density pumice.

      At least we won't have all that long to wait before we see what happens when DART scores 50.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Let's see what damage is done to diddymoon.

        Sample size of two is hardly conclusive (but it's certainly a strong option), and I'm pretty sure that DART itself will suffer badly - even hitting a reasonably sized cloud of dust at >6km/s will do that to... well anything really.

    2. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: Let's see what damage is done to diddymoon.

      A large piece fell off NZ’s highest snow capped alp Aoraki/Mt Cook once. The geologists were interested to get a look inside. “it looks just like weetbix” was the conclusion. IOW this sharp pointy alp is just a gravel pile.

      Some guys were recently rescued from high up it in a piece of rescue derring do for the history books.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I expect

    chain reaction with the obvious result, hopefully not in my lifetime ;)

  7. SkippyBing

    Project Orion

    As with most space related problems this could be solved far more elegantly by resurrecting Project Orion. Then you'd have some serious mass to use redirecting pesky asteroids.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Project Orion

      this could be solved far more elegantly by resurrecting Project Orion.

      What is the elegant solution for burning out all the electronics in the hemisphere that Orion launches from?

      [Note: launching from the other hemisphere is liable to cause "get your retaliation in first" style problems with those living there.]

      1. SkippyBing

        Re: Project Orion

        Launch from the Pacific Ocean, have you seen how much of the globe it covers?

        1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          Re: Project Orion

          Launch from the Pacific Ocean, have you seen how much of the globe it covers?

          As far as I can make out the minimal damage from a Pacific launch would still fry the electronics in the western US and eastern Australia, not to mention the *nesias.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Project Orion

        "What is the elegant solution for burning out all the electronics in the hemisphere that Orion launches from?"

        Not using megaton-class devices is a good starting point (Starfish Prime was 1.45MT, the Soviet equivalent was larger and fried most of central asia's electrical grid) ). Orion was built around 50kT devices - one of the reasons large parts of it are still classified - the bombs are SMALL and would be of use to terrorists because they're highly portable

    2. Jan 0 Silver badge

      Re: Project Orion

      May I propose that next Project Orion is started and launched from the Moon? Are there any fissile materials in the Moon?

      1. NXM

        Re: Project Orion

        Not after 13th September 1999. No moon either.

  8. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Theoretically...

    It does make sense. A fraction of 1% change in speed/direction a few million km out can have a big effect by the time Earth orbit is reached - the difference between taking out the ISS and taking out New York.

    But it will need preparation.

    Presumably if DART proves the principle, it will be wise to shift some large masses into orbit on stand-by to be shoved in the right direction when needed?

    1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

      Re: shift some large masses?

      Presumably the main trick is to transfer momentum to the target; and to get an impactor with a defined momentum doesn't require a large mass, but merely some mass, going fast enough. Since p=mv, you could get the same momentum from something with half the mass but twice the speed.

      A small mass going fast might presumably get there sooner, which sounds helpful; but I suppose it is possible that a larger mass might have some advantages in whatever horribly nonlinear collision process it is that takes place on impact.

      1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

        Re: shift some large masses?

        I think that the idea is that a small mass could nudge the asteroid's orbit so that it passes by - that's something that you have control over, whereas a large bang could break the asteroid up into many pieces with no way of knowing where they are going.

      2. KarMann Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: shift some large masses?

        There are two basic opposing effects in play when changing a given impulse between mass & speed. Smaller but faster has more of a chance for some of the impulse to be wasted, if it's so small and fast that some of it just keeps right on going through the target. Bigger but slower is more likely to transfer 100% of its own momentum, but will get less potential amplification from the impact throwing debris out from the crater, giving a little extra impulse for your buck. I don't know which effect would dominate over the other, though.

  9. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

    Have these bloody scientists never played pool? Sometimes a sheltered upbringing can endanger humanity!

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

      inelastic collisions will have a bigger effectl than a glancing elastic collision. If you are lucky enough to hit it straight on (so that all momentum transfers) like a billiard ball, then sure, why not. But the more likely scenario is a glancing blow that sends both objects off in predictable directions. So an inelastic collision (i.e. buries itself a few feet into the dirt on impact) would guarantee momentum is entirely transferred to the asteroid's moon.

      1. AnonEMusk Noel

        Re: Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

        In billiards only one of the objects is moving upon impact. I have no idea of the science involved in the collision part of DART's mission, but i'm thinking it's velocity will need to be significantly higher than the asteroid to produce the impact required?

        Otherwise DART will just ricochet away or obliterate on impact won't it?

        I wonder what the actual numbers are

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

          Ehh.. Where to start..?

          Basic physics, perhaps.

    2. JT_3K

      Re: Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

      They used to call me Dave 'Cinzano Bianco' Lister?

    3. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Surely it would be better to bounce off than crash?

      A small diameter spacecraft is likely to crash into the soft surface of an asteroid and impart its momentum and no more. The same spacecraft in a zorb type protection would bounce of possibly imparting twice as much momentum. The impact point can be chosen to maximise the effect as the spacecraft approaches.

  10. van.teknica

    If anyone can CRASH A SPACECRAFT, it's NASA. x-P

  11. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Alien

    Its all cover story

    anyway

    I have it on good authority that the target for the probe is not a space rock, but an alien space craft due to land here in dec 2022, hence hitting it with a large mass going at 6 km/sec

    The source is also the one that revealed the godzilla attack of 2005, and that Elvis is running a diner in Dayton Ohio

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Its all cover story

      What a lot of tosh! Lies, all lies! Don't believe a word Boris says!

      Ohio!?! We all know Elvis is living in Maryland!

      Geez, the lies some people will tell...

  12. Unicornpiss
    Meh

    Armageddon..

    Not that it's particularly pertinent to this article, but "Armageddon" was the only move I've seen in a theater that I've ever walked out on before the ending. I was annoyed by the banal cliches throughout it, it lost me at the utterly improbable (and likely impossible) simultaneous dual shuttle launch, and finally I couldn't take it anymore during Bruce's character's hammy "I did it for God and country" speech when he knew he would die. Just utter dreck. YMMV.

    1. AnonEMusk Noel

      Re: Armageddon..

      Well , personally, all i could think was 'i don't wanna miss a thing', so i watched it all the way through.

  13. David Roberts
    Trollface

    Large powered and steerable rocks in orbit?

    OK for space defence but could easily be repurposed

    Nice continent you have there. Shame if something happened to it.

  14. Felonmarmer

    More Red Dwarf than Armageddon

    Sounds like Planetary Pool to me...

    RIMMER: What the smeg is going on?

    LISTER: She rides!

    RIMMER: You jammy goit!

    LISTER: Played for, and got!

    KRYTEN: Surely not, Sir!

    CAT: Are you trying to say that was a trick shot?

    LISTER: (Doing the touch-up shuffle) Intended! Pool God! King of the Cues! Prince of the Planet-Potters!

  15. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    Surely we can do better than a mere 23760km/h? Slingshots around the sun would take more time of course, or we could make a very very very long railgun in spaaaace

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