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NASA Launches Mission That Could Deflect Dangerous Asteroid From Hitting Earth

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NASA has launched a spacecraft to test technology that aims to deflect a dangerous asteroid off its course and avert collision with Earth.

The US space agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the world's first full-scale mission to test technology for defending Earth against potential asteroid or comet hazards, launched Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. EST on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The spacecraft has separated from the Falcon 9 second stage and is flying on its own on a months-long voyage to rendezvous with an asteroid.

DART will show that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and intentionally collide with it - a method of deflection called kinetic impact. The test will provide important data to help better prepare for an asteroid that might pose an impact hazard to Earth, if one ever be discovered.

DART's one-way trip is to the Didymos asteroid system, which comprises a pair of asteroids. DART's target is the moonlet named Dimorphos, which is approximately 530 feet in diameter. The moonlet orbits Didymos, which is 2,560 feet in diameter.

Since Dimorphos orbits Didymos at much slower relative speed than the pair orbits the Sun, the result of DART's kinetic impact within the binary system can be measured much more easily than a change in the orbit of a single asteroid around the Sun.

LICIACube, a CubeSat riding with DART and provided by the Italian Space Agency, will be released ahead of DART's impact to capture its images and the resulting cloud of ejected matter. Roughly four years after DART's impact, European Space Agency will conduct detailed surveys of both asteroids, with particular focus on the crater left by DART's collision and a precise determination of Dimorphos' mass.

The DART spacecraft will intercept the Didymos system at sometime between September 26 and October 1, 2022, intentionally slamming into Dimorphos at roughly 4 miles per second. Scientists estimate the kinetic impact will shorten Dimorphos' orbit around Didymos by several minutes. Researchers will precisely measure that change using telescopes on Earth. Their results will validate and improve scientific computer models critical to predicting the effectiveness of the kinetic impact as a reliable method for asteroid deflection.

DART will continue to travel just outside of Earth's orbit around the Sun for the next 10 months until Didymos and Dimorphos will be a relatively close 6.8 million miles from Earth.

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