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NASA Has Officially Started Launching Missiles Into Asteroids


Gif: NASA Live

NASA’s DART program — the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — has officially taken to the skies, and it has one mission in mind: To absolutely destroy any asteroids that might threaten to turn the human race into our extinct dinosaur brethren.

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We talked a little bit about DART back in April, and I leave you to peruse that article from our wonderful Jason Torchinsky in order to glean any of the necessary technical details you might need. Torch, a certified alien life form living comfortably on Earth, knows far more about interplanetary defense than I. Basically, though, here’s what to expect:

Using the solar-powered ion engine and advanced autonomous targeting software, DART will ram itself into the moonlet, which will change the speed of the moonlet’s orbit around Didymos, a change that can be studied by telescopes on Earth.

The missile was launched at 1:21 a.m. ET on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket that came from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. At 2:17 a.m., DART separated from the second stage of the rocket and about two hours later had unfurled its solar arrays that power the craft.

Now it begins the process of intercepting the Dimorphos asteroid, which is located in the Didymos system. It’s going to be a while before we get there — NASA predicts the impact will come between Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, 2022, almost a full year from now.

I think the most fascinating thing here is the fact that NASA isn’t blowing these asteroids up. Rather, DART is giving it a gentle nudge at 4 miles per second, which will shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos by several minutes. That, though, will be enough to prevent a collision.

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Asteroid detection is a bit of a finicky science. The current asteroid that NASA is looking to redirect was detected years in advance, but most of the time, we only have hours to spare between detection and impact, Sky News reports. And that’s if we detect them at all — of the 1,200-odd asteroids that have collided with the Earth since 1988, scientists and astronomers have only been able to detect five.

That’s mostly because there’s no light in our solar system, so being able to see an asteroid depends on the phase of the moon and the direction of the asteroid’s approach relative to the sun. When we can see an asteroid, it’s usually pretty damn close to the Earth.

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But that’s part of what makes DART a crucial technology. If we can refine the system so that we’re able to not only detect asteroids earlier, but also get a rocket launched to redirect any potential hazards, we could be keeping the planet safe for the foreseeable future.

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