Nasa launches DART spacecraft mission to deflect asteroid in planetary defence test

·2-min read
Nasa launches DART spacecraft mission to deflect asteroid in planetary defence test

Nasa launched a spacecraft early Wednesday to test the world’s first planetary defence system against apocalyptic asteroid collisions with Earth.

The DART spacecraft, which must crash to succeed, was launched at 6.21am GMT from Vandenberg US Space Force Base on a SpaceX-owned Falcon 9 rocket, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Nasa aims to fly the spacecraft directly into the moonlet Dimorphos - which poses no actual threat - at 15,000 miles per hour, bumping it hard enough to shift its orbital track.

If successful, it could be proof of concept of the idea of deflecting any asteroids heading towards Earth, and avoiding catastrophe.

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 from Earth.

Once there, DART will attempt to alter an asteroid's trajectory with sheer kinetic force.

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 collision is set to happen in late September 2022.

Dimorphos, in the Didymos asteroid system, is tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, leading to extinction of the dinosaurs.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

But scientists say smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a greater theoretical danger in the near term.

The team behind DART chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make it ideal for observing the results of the impact.

Nasa expects to shorten Dimorphos' orbital track by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success as even a small nudge to an asteroid millions of miles away would be sufficient to reroute it.

The blast-off was shown live on Nasa TV and on the SpaceX Twitter account.

 (AP)
(AP)

It is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids.

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.

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.

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