With all the troubles in the world today, worrying that an asteroid will hit our planet seems a little superfluous. It also at times seems like perhaps the best way out of our current troubles — cosmic euthanasia for a terminally diseased world.
But that isn’t discouraging the boys and girls at NASA, who on Monday were planning the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which sounds a bit ominous right off the bat. And I don’t know why they started off with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test. Why not the First Asteroid Redirection Test? Oh, right.
The test is on the order of galactic shuffleboard, in which an earth-launched projectile knocks into an asteroid, changing its trajectory ever so slightly. Basically it’s practice for such a time that an asteroid is headed straight toward Earth and there is a life-or-death need to knock it off course.
I assume it’s going to go well, which it always does when there’s no pressure. It’s like making a putt when no one’s watching — which is exponentially easier than when you’re on the 18th hole at Augusta.
So it almost seems like they're inviting bad luck by doing it now. And you have to figure that when it matters, just prior to launch, the asteroid is going to try to ice NASA by calling a timeout.
The irony is that we wouldn’t be here without asteroids, right? If an asteroid hadn’t knocked out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, the T. rex would have just eaten up all us humans like potato chips. We’ve all seen drawings of cavemen surrounding a bovine-esque wooly mammoth with spears. Just try that with a velociraptor, Jim. They’re not going to sit around and wait for you to invent the cruise missile, they’re going to take you out.
The asteroid is the smaller of two that are orbiting the sun as a pair. It is not headed toward us, although if NASA’s project somehow accidentally knocked it INTO a collision course with Earth, how great would that be? It would make anything ever done by the Three Stooges look like an AARP class in opening PDFs — and would be so funny as to be almost be worth it.
“This mission is designed to show how a ‘kinetic impactor’ could deflect a dangerous asteroid that might strike the Earth,” wrote The Washington Post. It is “fraught with difficulties and uncertainties. The spacecraft must make crucial last-second navigational decisions autonomously. Flying a spacecraft at high speed — about 14,000 miles per hour — into a relatively small asteroid is something no one has ever done before.”
But this is NASA’s move, underselling its ability to perform complicated space tasks. We saw it with the Mars helicopter and the James Webb telescope: “This is a one in a million shot, there are so many things that can go wrong and the odds are really bleak and — oh look, we did it! Yay us!”
This mission is no different: “The asteroids are extremely dark,” said Elena Adams, an engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which is conducting the mission under contract with NASA. “We have to hit something that’s the size of two stadiums. You can’t see them until about an hour before hitting them …. Even then it’s just a pixel in our camera.”
Blah, blah, blah. And I don’t know if I can hang this picture on the wall, because the hammer has to intersect with the nail at just the right angle, and the laws of gravity might change and — oh I did it, wow, someone give me the Nobel Prize for interior decorating.
But here’s the thing: These aren’t just extraordinary things NASA is doing, they are miracles beyond all comprehension. These are pinpoint maneuvers from a zillion miles away with speeding technology that I can't even imagine.
We can do all that in the depths of space, and yet here on Earth we can’t even find adequate daycare or an affordable house.
Looks to me like down here on terra firma the wrong people are in charge.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Altering asteroid's course highlights of earthlings' poor leadership