Science

NASA launches DART asteroid mission to destroy spacecraft to (potentially) save planet Earth

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, California – NASA has launched its first planetary defense mission to practice what the agency could do if planet Earth were threatened by a strayed asteroid.

The agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched at 10:20 p.m. local time on Tuesday, November 23 (1:20 a.m. EDT, or 0620 GMT on November 24) from the Space Launch Complex. 4 here at Vandenberg Space Force Base. in California. DART soared into the skies atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, poised to travel millions of miles to crash into an asteroid in a planetary defense test.

“Liftoff of Falcon 9 and DART in NASA’s first planetary defense test to intentionally collide with an asteroid,” NASA spokeswoman Marie Lewis said during a live broadcast of the launch.

Related: NASA’s DART Asteroid Impact Mission Explained In Pictures

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NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 1:21 a.m. EST (0621 GMT) on November 24, 2021. .

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 1:21 a.m. EST (0621 GMT) on November 24, 2021. . (Image credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

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A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A view from the Falcon 9 rocket 23 seconds after lift-off. (Image credit: SpaceX / NASA TV)

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A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX / NASA TV)

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A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX / NASA TV)

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A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX / NASA TV)

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A screenshot from the NASA TV webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

The Falcon 9 booster landed on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of course I still love you.” (Image credit: SpaceX / NASA TV)

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on board is seen during sunrise at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on November 23, 2021.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft on board is seen during sunrise at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on November 23, 2021. (Image credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

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The Falcon 9 rocket with DART ready to launch on November 23, 2021 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The Falcon 9 rocket with DART ready to launch on November 23, 2021 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. (Image credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls)

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The DART spacecraft as seen inside a clean room before flight.

The DART spacecraft as seen inside a clean room before flight. (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman)

Almost nine minutes after liftoff, the SpaceX Falcon 9 thruster returned to Earth, making a vertical landing on the company’s drone ship called “Of course I still love you,” which was parked in the Pacific Ocean. The sea landing marked the 95th time SpaceX has recovered an orbital-class booster rocket.

DART is now on track to conduct a planetary defense test. The mission will use a “kinetic impact technique” to alter the orbit of an asteroid. In other words, the spaceship will crash into a space rock to change its direction. DART will hit a “small moon” called Dimorphos orbiting a much larger asteroid Didymos, and mission teams aim to shorten its orbit around Dimorphos by several minutes.

An artist's rendering of the DART spacecraft approaching the Didymos system.

An artist’s rendering of the DART spacecraft approaching the Didymos system. (Image credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Steve Gribben)

“It’s an intentional collision of a spacecraft against a rock,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science mission management during a news conference on Monday (November 22). “What we are trying to learn is how to deflect a threat.”

Now, neither the asteroid nor its tiny moon pose any danger of heading towards Earth (even if the test doesn’t go exactly as planned), experts told Space.com.

This asteroid system “has no chance of impacting Earth,” said astronomer Amy Mainzer, who is principal investigator for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Infrared Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. specializes in characterizing populations of asteroids and comets, he told Space.com.

It’s “an incredibly unlikely scenario,” Mainzer said. However, there is a possibility that one day there will be an asteroid that poses a serious danger to Earth and its inhabitants.

However, this test will show NASA how a kinetic impact technique could work against an asteroid that does pose a threat. If in the future, a large asteroid was identified that threatened Earth in some way, NASA could theoretically send a spacecraft like DART to crash into it and push it in a different direction.

At this time, no such threatening asteroid is known. However, as Zurbuchen and Mainzer pointed out, scientists have only classified about 40% of all near-Earth objects.

Now, scientists have cataloged about 90% of all near-Earth asteroids that are as big as the space rock that wiped out Earth’s great dinosaurs millions of years ago, Cristina Thomas, leader of the DART Observations Working Group. However, many smaller space rocks remain that have yet to be identified.

The key aspect of defending planet Earth against rogue space rocks is time.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@ or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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