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Thursday, December 9, 2021

NASA launches spacecraft to test asteroid defense concept

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NASA has launched a spacecraft on a mission to crash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to deflect a space rock at high speed if one threatened Earth.

LOS ANGELES – NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night on a mission to crash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to deflect a space rock at high speed if one threatened Earth.

The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, took off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a $ 330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis film “Armageddon.”

If all goes well, in September 2022 it will crash head-on into Dimorphos, a 525-foot (160-meter) wide asteroid, at 15,000 mph (24,139 kph).

“This is not going to destroy the asteroid. It will just give it a little nudge, ”said mission officer Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project.

Dimorphos orbits a much larger asteroid called Didymos. The pair pose no danger to Earth, but offer scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.

Dimorphos completes an orbit of Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. DART’s goal is a collision that will slow Dimorphos and cause it to fall closer to the largest asteroid, reducing its orbit by 10 minutes.

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

The DART technique could prove useful in altering the course of an asteroid years or decades before it reaches Earth with the potential for catastrophe.

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

Scientists constantly search for asteroids and plot their trajectories to determine if they could hit the planet.

“Although there is no known asteroid currently in the course of impact with Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer. “The key to planetary defense is finding them long before they are an impact threat.”

DART will take 10 months to reach the asteroid pair. The collision will occur about 11 million kilometers from Earth.

Ten days earlier, DART will launch a small observation spacecraft provided by the Italian space agency that will follow.

DART will transmit video until it is destroyed upon impact. Three minutes later, the tracking craft will take pictures of the impact site and the ejected material.

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