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Compared to the drama of doomsday movies, NASA’s DART mission is almost too simplistic

NASA is launching a test mission to alter path of an asteroid. Doomsday movies of ’90s underestimated scientists.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will take 10 months to fly an unmanned spacecraft — about the size of a golf cart — and crash it into an asteroid the size of a pyramid.

Long before the impending AI apocalypse, a la Black Mirror, there was Armageddon and Deep Impact (1998). In the late 1990s, with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust receding after the Cold War, the greatest challenge to life as we know it was to come from outer space. Along with evil imperialist aliens, an asteroid — like the one which knocked out the dinosaurs — was the amoral villain in multiple movies. And astronauts, nuclear weapons and even a rough-and-ready oil-drilling team were employed to take out the threat. Now, it turns out, there was a bit of fact in all that fiction.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will take 10 months to fly an unmanned spacecraft — about the size of a golf cart — and crash it into an asteroid the size of a pyramid. The destructive ride serves a purpose: It is a test to see whether the impact can alter the course of the celestial wanderer, even if slightly. If successful, the mission will confirm the ability to protect earth from asteroids that could level the planet, or on a smaller scale, large cities and regions.

Compared to the complexity and drama of doomsday movies, the DART mission is almost too simplistic. Blame Occam’s Razor. It turns out that it is very unlikely that world governments can be “surprised” by a large asteroid — they have been watching the skies and tracking them for a while now. And there is no need for nuclear weapons or Bruce Willis to stop a large rock — a glorified, space-faring drone will do. The simplest explanations and solutions are clearly the ones scientists go for. That might not make for a blockbuster hit, but given how much there is to worry about on terra firma, the lack of drama is welcome.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 24, 2021 under the title ‘No Armageddon’.

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