NASA to Launch Test Mission of Asteroid-Deflecting Spacecraft

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A SpaceX rocket was prepared to blast off from California late Tuesday as NASA seeks to demonstrate the first of its kind planetary defense system, designed to deflect an asteroid from a potential doomsday collision with Earth. has been done.

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The Dart mission will test NASA’s ability to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with kinetic force — crashing a robotic spacecraft at high speeds and scraping space boulders high enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.

DART’s target is a tiny fraction of the size of the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that hit Earth about 66 million years ago, killing most of the planet’s animal species. It is not on the path that it will hit Earth in the near future.

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But scientists say smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a far greater theoretical threat to Earth in the near future.

NASA has commissioned Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to launch Dart on a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:20 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday (1:20 a.m. Eastern/0620 GMT Wednesday) from Vandenberg Air Force Base off the coast of California. Los Angeles.

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If liftoff is postponed, NASA has an 84-day launch window in which to try again.

Once released into space, Dart will travel for 10 months to its destination, approximately 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.

Its target is an asteroid “moonlight” the size of a football stadium that orbits a large chunk of rock — about five times as large — in a binary asteroid system called Didymos, the Greek word for twin.

The Moon, named Dimorphos, is one of the smallest celestial bodies to receive a permanent name. But at 525 feet (160 km) in diameter, its size is typical of known asteroids – the debris-like remnants left over from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

an illustration of the dart spacecraft

Simpler than ‘Armageddon’

Scientists chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and the dual-asteroid configuration make it ideal for observing the consequences of an impact.

The key to escaping a killer asteroid is to detect it well in advance and be prepared with the means to change its course, NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson said at a media briefing this month.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to test that kind of capability,” he said.

The team behind DART, the acronym for Double Asteroid Redirect Test, determined that a car-sized projectile should slam into a Dimorphos-sized asteroid at 15,000 mph (24,000 kph) .

The DART spacecraft, a cube-shaped box containing two rectangular solar arrays, is due to rendezvous with the Didymos-Dimorphos pair in late September 2022.

The impactor released from Dart about 10 days ago and cameras on the briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft will record the collision.

Observations from ground-based telescopes and radar will then measure how much the Moon’s orbit around Didymos changes.

The DART team is hoping to shorten the orbital track by about 10 minutes, but will consider at least 73 seconds a success.

According to Lindley, the full cost of the Dart project will be about $330 million, far less than many of NASA’s ambitious science missions.

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