(LOS ANGELES) — 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 space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.
The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a $330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon.”
All goes well and the 1,200-pound (1,540-kilogram), boxy craft will smash into Dimorphos (an asteroid measuring 525 feet (16 meters across) at 15,000mph (24,139 kph).
“This isn’t going to destroy the asteroid. It’s just going to give it a small nudge,” said mission official Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project.
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Dimorphos is orbited by Didymos an even larger asteroid. Although they are not dangerous to Earth, scientists can use the pair to better measure the impact of collisions than one asteroid traveling through space.
Dimorphos orbits Didymos once every 55 minutes, for an average of 11 hours. DART’s goal is a crash that will slow Dimorphos down and cause it to fall closer toward the bigger asteroid, shaving 10 minutes off its orbit.
Telescopes located on Earth will measure the change in orbital period. The mission must be completed in 73 seconds to be considered successful.
DART could be used to alter the trajectory of an asteroid before it strikes Earth.
A small nudge “would add up to a big change in its future position, and then the asteroid and the Earth wouldn’t be on a collision course,” Chabot said.
Scientists are always looking for asteroids, and they plot their routes to see if any of them could reach the planet.
“Although there isn’t a currently known asteroid that’s on an impact course with the Earth, we do 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 finding them well before they are an impact threat.”
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DART will need to travel 10 months in order for the pair of asteroid pairs to be reached. About 6.8 Million miles (61.1 Million kilometers) from Earth will be involved in the collision.
DART will make available a miniature observation spacecraft that the Italian space agency has provided ten days in advance. This spacecraft will then be used to track it.
DART will broadcast video from the moment it’s destroyed by impact. Within three minutes, DART will stream video of the impact site.