Thursday, September 28, 2023

Asteroid Whisperer | MIT Technology Review

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“We’ve been observing Didymos for five years to understand the state of the system before changing it forever so we can see [the difference between] what we did with DART versus what was going to happen naturally,” says Rivkin. “Once we receive and interpret the results, we can apply them where necessary. Or hopefully not necessary.”

When he’s not working on a potentially life-saving mission, Rivkin studies how that life might have come about in the first place.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on that the water and organic materials we have on Earth were brought in through impacts with asteroids and comets,” he says. “So the study of where the water is in asteroids has a lot of influence on that.”

Rivkin uses astronomical spectroscopy and spectrophotometry to determine the composition of asteroids in our solar system. This means it measures the spectra of electromagnetic radiation from asteroids and comets to determine where such materials may be present.

This celestial dowsing can also help human life expand further into the cosmos. To that end, Rivkin has partnered with the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, which asks questions like: Can we use asteroid water as a rocket propellant in deep space missions? If so, which asteroids are good candidates for a pit stop?

But with great knowledge comes great responsibility, and Rivkin feels obligated to address the many ethical considerations associated with space travel.

“What does it mean if we expand our economy into space? What’s the ethics of that? How do we bring the best parts of humanity and not our worst parts?” he asks.

Thinking about the evolution and fate of human life in the universe can get tough, so Rivkin turns to music whenever he needs a break. Playing drums in elementary school led him to form a band with some friends during his time at MIT. Thirty years later, he still enjoys writing and performing music under the moniker “Andy Rivkin and his Gedankenband”, and his songs are available on popular streaming platforms.

“It’s a good mental health break to just pick up a guitar,” he says. “When I give advice to someone who is going to college, I always tell you to keep doing your hobbies. Maybe in the first year you’re like, ‘I really don’t have time for this.’ But you’ll be much happier in 10 or 15 to 20 years if you do.”

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