LOS ANGELES — NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night to smash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to slam a fast-moving rock off threatening Earth.

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The small Dart spacecraft for the Double Asteroid Redirect Test lifts from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop 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 hit an asteroid 525 feet (160 m) across, Dimorphos, at 15,000 mph (24,139 kph).


“It’s not going to destroy the asteroid. It’s just going to give it a small jolt,” said mission officer Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Dimorphos orbits a very large asteroid called Didymos. The pair pose no threat to Earth but provide scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.

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

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

DART technology could prove useful for replacing an asteroid with the potential for catastrophe on Earth years or decades ago.

“A little nudge” would make a big difference in its future position, Chabot said, and then the asteroid and Earth would not be on a collision course.

Scientists continually search for asteroids and plot their course to determine if they may collide with the planet.

“While there are currently no known asteroids that are on an impact path with Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer. “The key to protecting planets is finding them well before the threat of impact.”

It will take 10 months for Dart to reach the pair of asteroids. The collision will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from Earth.

Ten days ago, Dart will release a small observation spacecraft supplied by the Italian Space Agency that will follow.

DART will stream the video until it is destroyed by impact. Three minutes later, the trailing craft will eject the impact site and material.