Hancock College students had the chance to speak with NASA scientists at the forefront of planetary defense technology and asteroid research Monday as the agency prepares for a trailblazing launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

At 10:20 p.m. on Tuesday, NASA will commence its Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission by launching the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, measuring over 200 feet tall and 12 feet wide, from the Lompoc base toward the asteroid Didymos, measuring about half a mile in diameter, and specifically its smaller moon Dimorphos. 

While the asteroid does not pose a threat to Earth, scientists intend to test how the collision of a high-speed vessel with an asteroid can change its path of orbit, providing insight about potential defenses against more treacherous bodies at risk of hitting Earth.

The two-day Asteroid Days event leading up to the launch allowed the Hancock and larger Santa Maria communities to attend a NASA expo inside the college's Student Center as well as different workshops focused on current space research and the DART launch itself.

"I’m very excited to see what the impact is gonna do to the orbit," said Solveig Irvine, NASA's mission manager for the DART expedition, during the expo on Monday. "This is a project that’s been in the works for years, so having all the parts come together is an exciting conclusion, especially with the pandemic." 

Irvine said the agency expects to receive results regarding the spacecraft's impact in September 2022, a relatively quick turnaround compared to the decadelong wait associated with other missions. 

Xris Benitez, who is studying geology at Hancock, was one of several students who explored the NASA expo, speaking with Brian Day of NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute as he shared samples of chondrite and iron meteorites.

"I'm studying geology, but all of this jazzes me up, more so the technological side of it," Benitez said.

The event also featured representatives from NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, which has been the central site for the agency's planetary defense research.

M. Josh Roberts, a public affairs specialist for Ames, used a makeshift asteroid display and infrared camera to demonstrate to students how NASA will use thermal infrared technology to track the asteroids after the launch.

Along with NASA, Asteroid Days featured partnering agencies focused on educational STEM opportunities for students, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science and the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford. 

Xinnan Du of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology spoke to a physics class at Hancock on Monday and also shared information about the current research regarding Mars during the Asteroid Days event.

"This DART launch specifically is an exciting one. Personally, I’ve heard about and studied it for a long time," Du said.

Community members can join a free public viewing of the DART launch at Hancock's Lompoc Valley Center at One Hancock Drive from 9 p.m. to midnight on Tuesday along with NASA representatives and students and faculty from Hancock’s MESA/STEM program.

Live coverage of the launch also will air on NASA TV, the NASA app and the agency’s website, according to NASA.


Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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