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SpaceX launches NASA’s DART spacecraft to crash into an asteroid

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft is placed in the nose of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for launch.

Ed Whitma / Johns Hopkins APL / NASA

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch a one-of-a-kind planetary defense mission for NASA in the early hours of Wednesday morning, sending the spacecraft on the verge of intentionally crashing into an asteroid.

“We are crashing into an asteroid,” NASA Launch Services Program Senior Launch Director Omar Baez told a press conference. “I can’t believe we’re doing this”

Known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) mission, the space agency is trying to learn “how to deflect a threat that would come” to Earth, the mission’s associate administrator of NASA said. scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.

“Rest assured, this rock is not a threat right now,” he said.

SpaceX is launching DART on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, with a takeoff window that begins at 1:20 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

DART is a 610 kilogram spacecraft that will spend 10 months traveling to a pair of asteroids, named Didymos and Dimorphos. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland built the DART, while space company Redwire helped navigate the spacecraft and the solar panels that will power it.

The objective of the mission is to hit the smaller of the two asteroids, Dimorphos, with the spacecraft at around 15,000 miles per hour and see how the impact alters the asteroid’s trajectory.

An overview of the DART mission plan.

NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

The DART mission costs NASA around $ 330 million in total, with SpaceX winning a $ 69 million contract in 2019 for the launch. Not only is this NASA’s first planetary defense mission, DART is also SpaceX’s first mission to launch a spacecraft to another planetary body.

“It’s just the coolest mission. Thank you all for making SpaceX part of a really important planetary defense mission,” Julianna Scheiman, SpaceX’s director of civilian satellite missions, said during a press conference.

The SpaceX test fired its Falcon 9 rocket last Friday in preparation for launch.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dual Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, aboard the spacecraft is seen at sunrise on November 23, 2021 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Bill Ingalls / NASA

To give an idea of ​​the scale, the asteroid Dimorphos is roughly the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, while the asteroid Didymos is larger in diameter than the One World Trade Center tower in New York City. After arriving on the asteroids and before it crashes into Dimorphos, the DART spacecraft will deploy a small cubic satellite to take photos of the impact event.

As the mission tests a planetary defense method, Zurbuchen stressed that NASA was not aware of any short-term risk to Earth. There are billions of asteroids and comets orbiting the sun, but only a few stand a chance of hitting Earth for a very long time.

“Of all the near-Earth objects we know of today, none of them pose a threat in about 100 years,” Zurbuchen said.

Infographic showing the sizes of the two asteroids of the Didymos system in relation to some objects on Earth.

NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

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