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Opinion NASA’s asteroid-hitting mission is a call to action

This combination of images provided by NASA shows three views of the DART spacecraft impact on the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26. (NASA via AP) (AP)

NASA crashed a spaceship into an asteroid. But don’t worry, that’s good news. This week’s successful Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is cause both for celebration and for action. To make the mission count for more than a nifty science demonstration, there’s work to be done.

Asteroid collisions with our planet are what’s known as low-probability, high-impact events — much like, say, pandemics. Could-be catastrophes don’t tend to get as much attention as smaller-scale problems with a higher chance of occurring during our lifetimes. NASA’s DART experiment is a welcome departure from this norm: The project sent a vehicle roughly the size of a golf cart careening into a rock roughly the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, aiming not to annihilate the asteroid but rather to nudge it. By altering the orbit only slightly, NASA showed it can, well, save the world. The asteroid that DART flung itself against this week didn’t pose a threat now or in the foreseeable future, but if we know another asteroid does, we can theoretically push it off course.

The knowing part, however, is key. NASA may be able to move asteroids, but it must do so five to 10 years before they’re projected to hit Earth to make them miss. Yet scientists believe we have found only 40 percent of asteroids 460 feet wide and larger — which includes those big enough to rival the ones believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs as well as many of those big enough to destroy a city by loosing 10,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Even smaller asteroids can do serious damage: Think of the 10-ton meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013 and injured 1,200 people. We’ve seen near-disasters, too, like the car-sized asteroid that skirted our atmosphere in the summer of 2020.

Guest Opinion: Three cheers for NASA’s asteroid smasher

Congress created a mandate in 2005 that NASA identify 90 percent of those 460-foot-plus asteroids, but progress so far has been shaky. Hope rests on a planned upgrade of NASA’s Neowise telescope. This highly sensitive contraption, which should be able to see a 460-foot asteroid from 50 million miles away, will detect heat signatures rather than visible light — so that the space rocks glow, instead of looking like bits of charcoal against an infinite black background. Bureaucracy ensnared the effort for more than a decade. NASA now plans to launch NEO Surveyor in 2026, but some scientists are skeptical after the agency proposed to cut more than 75 percent of the project’s budget in the coming year. More encouragingly, both chambers of Congress have drawn up appropriations bills restoring some of that money, and the Chips Act specifies that NASA shouldn’t cut NEO Surveyor to accommodate other cost overruns.

Planetary defense, as it’s called, may not inspire the thrill of a moon landing or a trip to Mars. A mission like DART is about as exciting as it gets. Yet if we don’t devote ourselves to the task today, we might regret it when we find ourselves facing the end of the world.

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