NASA launches spacecraft to crash into asteroids

NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to knock a speeding spacecraft off course if one were to threaten Earth.

The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a $ 330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon”.

If all goes well, in September 2022 it will collide head-on into Dimorphos, an asteroid 525 feet across, with 15,000 mph.

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The DART spacecraft, an abbreviation for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 from Simi Valley, California, after launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The DART spacecraft, an abbreviation for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 from Simi Valley, California, after launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base.
(AP Photo / Mark J. Terrill)

“This is not going to ruin the asteroid. It will just give it a little push,” said mission official Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who is leading the project.

Dimorphos orbits a much larger asteroid called Didymos. The pair is no danger to Earth, but offers scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.

Dimorphos completes an orbit around Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. DART’s target is a crash that will slow Dimorphos down and cause it to fall closer to the larger asteroid and shave 10 minutes away from its orbit.

The change in orbital period will be measured with telescopes on Earth. The minimum change for the mission to be considered a success is 73 seconds.

The DART technique may prove useful in changing the course of an asteroid years or decades before it carries down to Earth with the potential for disaster.

A small push “would add up to a major change in its future position, and then the asteroid and Earth would not be on a collision course,” Chabot said.

Scientists are constantly searching for asteroids and plotting their courses to determine if they can hit the planet.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will be launched with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, aboard Tuesday, November 23, 2021 from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will be launched with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, aboard Tuesday, November 23, 2021 from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
(Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP)

“Although there is not a currently known asteroid that is on a crash course with Earth, we know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA. “The key to planetary defense is to find them well in advance before they pose a threat.”

DART will take 10 months to reach the asteroid pair. The collision will take place about 6.8 million miles from Earth.

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft on board, will be ready for launch on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 at Space Launch Complex 4E, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft on board, will be ready for launch on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 at Space Launch Complex 4E, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
(Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP)

Ten days in advance, DART will release a small observation spacecraft provided by the Italian space agency, which will follow it.

The DART will stream video until it is destroyed by shock. Three minutes later, the rear vessel will take pictures of the crash site and material being thrown out.

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