The US Space Agency (NASA) on Wednesday launched a spacecraft to test the world’s first planetary defense system. It aims to verify the technology that could one day save a dangerous asteroid from hitting Earth.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s Falcon 9, a SpaceX rocket carrying the Dart spacecraft, lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at approximately 3:20 a.m. this morning. The takeoff was televised live on the Twitter accounts of NASA and SpaceX. Watch the video:
The spacecraft will collide with a space object called Dimorphos to see how much of its speed and path can be changed. If a piece of cosmic debris hundreds of meters wide collides with a planet, it could wreak havoc across the continent.
“DART will change the orbit period of Dimorphos quite a bit. And indeed an asteroid should have already been discovered,” said Kelly Fast of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Division.
The Dart mission will cost $325 million and will target a pair of asteroids that orbit each other – known as binaries. The larger of the two objects, called Didymos, is about 780 meters in diameter, while the smaller – Dimorphos – is about 160 meters wide.
After leaving Earth’s gravity, the dart will follow its orbit around the Sun. The binary is predicted to intercept in September 2022.
The mission is expected to hit Dimorphos at a speed of about 6.6 km/s. This should change the object’s speed by a fraction of a millimeter per second – changing its orbit around Didymos. Although this is a small change, it could be enough to move an object out of its way to hit Earth.
There is no danger of hitting the Earth even if the mission is not successful. On the other hand, if done successfully, it could provoke the first ever artificially created meteor shower by man.
The team behind DART chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and the configuration of the double asteroids make it ideal for observing impact results.