NASA’s DART Mission And The Future Of Human Space Exploration
Earlier this week, this world watched as NASA crashed a spacecraft into the surface of the asteroid Dimorphous in an attempt to alter its orbit around a larger asteroid, Didymos.
While the ultimate results of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART will not be known for some time, Texas A&M University associate professor Patrick Suermann says the fact that scientists were able to successfully impact the asteroid’s surface as planned is a cause for celebration.
Suermann, who also is the interim dean of A&M’s School of Architecture, is one of many scholars carving out the future of human space exploration. His cutting-edge research focuses on future construction and mining operations on the Moon, asteroids and other celestial objects. Texas A&M Today spoke with Suermann about the implications of this week’s successful asteroid mission.
Briefly describe your research on space-based drilling and construction projects.
My primary experience in the military was expeditionary construction in Saudi Arabia, the Pacific, Afghanistan and Greenland. I’ve carried this experience toward a foundation in researching what it would take to excavate, mine or construct in the ultimate expeditionary environment – the Moon or Mars, in support of Project Artemis. I was excited to see the recent Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center and how we can work more in depth with NASA on furthering their efforts.
What was the goal behind NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, which this week slammed into an asteroid on purpose?
There are two main reasons we do missions like these: First, to mine asteroids for precious metals or other elements/compounds that are more plentiful in other parts of the solar system than on our planet, or second, to physically redirect asteroids so they do not damage Earth. This mission’s main focus was the latter, so it was an attempt to show that we could accomplish all the steps necessary to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”
As we saw from this tentatively successful effort, the amount of engineering and calculations that have to be done to be successful in this effort are staggering, but Aggie engineers and scientists (among others) have what it takes to make it a reality.
What was your reaction to watching the test this week?
Gratitude. We live in the most advanced society the planet has ever known, but we are still accomplishing “firsts.” I’m grateful that we have boundless potential to accomplish things we have not begun to dream about. We make the impossible possible.
What is the long-term value of this particular test, and why are researchers interested in exploring, landing on and even one day mining an asteroid?
For this mission, the DART was intended to redirect the trajectory of the asteroid. To determine if the DART had the desired effect will take several weeks to see if the trajectory actually changes. This will have many positive ripple effects if we can prove this process successful and replicable.
There are tons of space trash that threaten our valuable satellite assets in space, and they need to be defended. We’ve seen that mining precious metals and compounds on Earth is usually dull, dirty and dangerous. Mining corporations here are using robotics from companies like OFFWORLD robotics to remove humans from these sorts of working conditions in terrestrial mines to improve safety and avoid risk. If we could make harvesting “space trash” (actually precious metals needed on Earth) successful and replicable via these remotely operated robotic vehicles, it would lessen environmental impact on Earth and increase prosperity on our planet.
Will we need to mine asteroids if humankind is going to attempt to live on the Moon or Mars?
Instead of dividing up pieces of the pie here on Earth, this would open an entire new “grocery store of pies” we could access to fuel up in space or further support terrestrial development. It is not needed or required, but it would “sure be a lot cooler” if we could because it would enable stretching our space reach abilities.
When do you think mining asteroids will become a reality?
According to the Chemical and Engineering News organization in 2018, less than one milligram of mined asteroid material has been successfully returned to Earth. However, when you consider that asteroids were discovered in 1801, man’s first flight was in 1903, and here in 2022 we are planning on going to the Moon and on to Mars, my faith in human ingenuity informed by science and engineering tells me we will be able to successfully mine asteroids in the next 25 years. Chancellor Sharp and President Banks are just the right leaders to motivate us to figure this out.
Does this week’s test hold any interesting implications for your work in this area?
My primary area of interest remains lunar or Martian construction and not propulsion. However, Texas A&M University is a vast and matrixed organization of experts in every area of NASA’s Technology Taxonomy. This is the almanac of required skills necessary for making Artemis’s goal of putting the first woman and the next man on the Moon and on to Mars a reality. Texas A&M is a crucial component for the knowledge and skills required for all aspects of our current and future missions in space. I look forward to being part of the design and construction of the first successful lunar landing pads.