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NASA probe to smash into asteroid launches

November 24, 2021

NASA is launching a spacecraft probe that will smash into an asteroid to veer it off course. The mission is a test run, designed to see if the same approach could one day work on a rock on a collision course with Earth.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft onboard
The launch occurred Tuesday evening Pacfic time at Vandenberg Space Force Base in CaliforniaImage: Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP/picture alliance

Tuesday NASA launched a spacecraft probe that designed to slam into a double asteroid in the second half of 2022 to divert it off course in what is being described as a planetary defense test.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is an effort to assess how to veer asteroids off course should earth be threatened by an asteroid bound for destruction of life on earth.

Launch Illustration of US space agency NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) as it moves between two asteroids
Tuesday's launch is a planetary defense experiment, being conducted on a double asteroid that does not run the risk of colliding with EarthImage: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben

The DART probe took off at 10:21 p.m. Pacific Time Tuesday (0621 GMT Wednesday) aboard a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The $330 million (€294 million) project is the first of its kind.

"Every time we show up at an asteroid, we find stuff we don't expect," DART investigation team lead Andy Rivkin said.

What is DART's mission?

The goal of the mission is to slightly change the trajectory of an asteroid that scientists have named Dimorphos, which is around 525 feet (160 meters) wide. Dimorphos rotates around a much larger asteroid scientists have named Didymos, making it a "moonlet" of the larger rock, and together the mini system orbits the sun.

"Asteroid Dimorphous: we're coming for you!" NASA wrote in a Tweet sharing footage of the launch. 

The impact of DART slamming into Dimorphos is scheduled currently for the week of September 26, 2022. The binary asteroid system of Dimorphos and Didymos will be 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth then, the closest scientists say the two asteroids will get to our planet.

DART will also have sophisticated navigational and imaging instruments onboard, including the Italian Space Agency's Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) to view the crash and its aftermath.

NASA's top scientist Thomas Zuburchen said, "What we're trying to learn is how to deflect a threat."

Scientists do not know of any asteroids that currently threaten this planet, although they also concur that it is only a matter of time — potentially a very long time — until one will. They have identified 27,000 asteroids near earth and 10,000 of those asteroids have a diameter greater than 140 meters (459 feet), a size NASA deems large enough to pose the risk of major damage on impact.

"It's the only natural disaster we can prevent, an asteroid impact," Kelly Fast, a scientist in the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, dedicated to looking into ways to protect the earth from such impacts, said.

European Space Agency mission Hera, launching in 2024, will study the impact in more detail.

ar/msh (AFP, dpa)