NASA launches spacecraft whose mission is to kick an asteroid off course

DART probe, the size of a car, will slam into the Dimorphos ‘moonlet’ at more than 24,000 kilometers per hour in an attempt to knock it off course.

NASA launched a mission to deliberately smash a spacecraft into an asteroid – a test-run should humanity ever need to stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth. It may sound like science fiction, but the DART – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – is a real proof-of-concept experiment. It blasted off at 10:21 pm on Tuesday (06:21 GMT Wednesday) onboard a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The goal is to slightly alter the trajectory of Dimorphos, a “moonlet” about 160 meters (525 feet) wide that circles a much larger asteroid called Didymos 762 meters (2,500 feet) in diameter. The pair orbit the Sun together. The impact should take place in the third quarter of 2022 when the binary asteroid system is 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) from Earth, almost the nearest point they ever get.

“What we’re trying to learn is how to deflect a threat,” NASA’s top scientist Thomas Zuburchen said of the $330m projects, the first of its kind.

To be clear, the asteroids in question pose no threat to the planet. But they belong to a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which approach within 48 million kilometers. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is most interested in those larger than 140 meters in size, which have the potential to level entire cities or regions with many times the energy of the average nuclear bomb.

10,000 known near-Earth asteroids size or greater, but none has a significant chance of hitting in the next 100 years. One big caveat: scientists think there are still 15,000 more such objects waiting to be discovered.

Planetary scientist Essam Heggy said while the NASA mission sounds like science fiction, the threat to the planet is real if the fate of the dinosaurs 80 million years ago is recalled. “The chances of getting hit again by an asteroid is far from science fiction,” he told Al Jazeera. “Asteroids 100 meters and greater are a threat to the Earth, and we need to quantify our deflection capability to these threats.”




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