With tonight’s launch, NASA starts getting serious about planetary defense

A rocket and launchpad against an azure sky.

Enlarge / The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft aboard. (credit: NASA)

Weather permitting, a Falcon 9 rocket will launch a key asteroid-deflection mission for NASA on Tuesday night from California. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART mission, will seek to demonstrate the capability to change an asteroid’s orbit next year.

Powered by ion thrusters, the 700-kg spacecraft aims to rendezvous with a double asteroid next October. Once there, the spacecraft will attempt to collide with Dimorphos, a small “moonlet” of a larger asteroid named Didymos. DART will strike Dimorphos at a rate a little greater than 6.6 km/s, aiming to slightly alter the trajectory of the asteroid, which measures approximately 170 meters across.

If NASA successfully completes this test, it will have demonstrated the capability to, one day, deflect an incoming asteroid on a collision course with Earth. “We’re trying to show that we can mitigate a threat like this,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief of science, in an interview with Ars.

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