A spacecraft that must ultimately crash to succeed was launched late on Tuesday from California on a NASA mission to demonstrate the world’s first planetary defense system, designed to deflect an asteroid from a potential doomsday collision with Earth.
The DART spacecraft soared into the night sky at 10:21 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday (1:21 a.m. Eastern/0621 GMT Wednesday) from Vandenberg US Space Force Base, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, carried aboard a SpaceX-owned Falcon 9 rocket.
The launch was shown live on NASA TV.
The DART payload, about the size of a small car, was released from the booster minutes after launch to begin a 10-month journey into deep space, some 6.8 million miles (11 km) from Earth.
Once there DART will test its ability to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with sheer kinetic force, plowing into it at high speed to nudge the space boulder off course just enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.
Cameras mounted on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft to be released from DART about 10 days beforehand will record the collision and beam images of it back to Earth.
The asteroid DART is aimed at poses no actual threat and is tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, leading to extinction of the dinosaurs. But scientists say smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a greater theoretical danger in the near term.
DART’s target is an asteroid “moonlet” the size of a football stadium that orbits a chunk of rock five times larger in a binary asteroid system named Didymos, the Greek word for twin.
The team behind DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make it ideal for observing the results of the impact.
Bumping asteroid moonlet
The plan is to fly the DART spacecraft directly into the moonlet, called Dimorphos, at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph), bumping it hard enough to shift its orbital track around the larger asteroid.
Cameras on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART about 10 days beforehand will record the collision and beam images back to Earth. Ground-based telescopes will measure how much the moonlet’s orbit around Didymos changes.
The DART team expects to shorten Dimorphos’ orbital track by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success. A small nudge to an asteroid millions of miles away would be sufficient to safely reroute it.
DART is the latest of several NASA missions of recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago.
Last month, NASA launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRES-REx is on its way back to Earth with a sample collected last October from the asteroid Bennu.
The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA.
Although all none poses a foreseeable hazard to humankind, NASA estimates many more asteroids remain undetected in the near-Earth vicinity.
The DART spacecraft, cube-shaped with two rectangular solar arrays, is due to rendezvous with the Didymos-Dimorphos pair in late September 2022.
NASA put the entire cost of the DART project at $330 million, well below that of many of the space agency’s most ambitious science missions.
Scientists find likely origin of asteroid that killed dinosaurs 66 mln years ago
NASA’s asteroid hunter Lucy soars into sky with diamonds on a 12-year quest
Armageddon: Chinese researchers propose deflecting asteroids with rockets
NASA’s asteroid hunter Lucy soars into sky with diamonds on a 12-year questA NASA spacecraft named Lucy rocketed into the sky with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year quest to explore eight asteroids.Seven of the ... Life
Snakes evolved from survivors of asteroid that wiped out dinosaursAll living snakes evolved from a handful of species that survived the giant asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, the findings of a new study ... World News
Scientists find likely origin of asteroid that killed dinosaurs 66 mln years agoScientists claim to have located the asteroid that allegedly made dinosaurs extinct around 66 million years ago. New research by Southwest Research ... Life
Only slight chance of asteroid Bennu hitting Earth: ScientistsAn asteroid known as Bennu will pass within half the distance of the Earth to the Moon in the year 2135 but the probability of an impact with our ... Variety
Armageddon: Chinese researchers propose deflecting asteroids with rocketsChinese researchers want to send more than 20 of China’s largest rockets to practice turning away a sizable asteroid - a technique that may eventually ... World News
Massive asteroid will safely pass by Earth, no threat of collision, says NASAThe largest asteroid to pass by Earth this year will swing closest on Sunday, giving astronomers a rare chance for a good look at a space rock that ... Variety
Japan’s space scientists overjoyed to find ample soil, gas from asteroid missionOfficials from Japan’s space agency said Tuesday they have found more than the anticipated amount of soil and gases inside a small capsule the ... Variety