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NASA's DART asteroid collision mission nears launch

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NASA's DART asteroid collision mission nears launch
The DART asteroid impactor spacecraft is packed inside the nosecone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the SpaceX processing facility inside Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Nov. 16, 2021. Photo by Ed Whitman/NASA

Nov. 23 (UPI) -- NASA is set to launch a spacecraft from California on Tuesday night to smack head on into an asteroid next fall in an effort to understand how humanity could prevent such a space body from colliding with Earth.

Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to launch the DART mission, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base at 10:20 p.m. PST.

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The spacecraft, about the size of a refrigerator with longer solar panels, will travel about 7 million miles to the Didymos asteroid system, where it is expected to crash next fall. Didymos poses no threat to Earth.

NASA's $330 million mission comes 23 years after Hollywood portrayed such an asteroid deflection attempt in the blockbuster 1998 film Armageddon starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck among others.

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But there are no nuclear explosives on DART as portrayed in the fictional movie. The spacecraft will attempt to alter the course of the asteroid only by a few feet just by slamming into it, said Lindley Johnson, NASA's planetary defense officer.

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The asteroid target is actually a small satellite of Didymos named Dimorphos, about the size of a football stadium. The spacecraft is only 1,344 pounds, about the weight of an adult cow.

Given the vastness of space, such a nudge may be enough to prevent a potential collision with Earth in the future, Johnson said.

"The DART mission is one possibility of what we might do if we found an asteroid on impact course with the Earth," Johnson said during a press conference Monday evening. "So we're testing this kinetic impactor technique where we just ram a spacecraft into the asteroid at high velocity."

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In fact there's nothing unique about the DART spacecraft -- no reinforcement, no ramming device, said Ed Reynolds, DART project manager with Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

"The spacecraft is designed and built just as we build other spacecraft ... with a lot of honeycomb aluminum to build decking structures, but there's nothing special," Reynolds said. "The technique is basically the mass of the spacecraft itself. You hit the asteroid with that mass, and you will have, you will have a reaction."

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He noted that the spacecraft mission will be relatively brief compared to many NASA missions.

"There's going to be a joyfulness, but there's also going to be just the sadness of ... the spacecraft is gone," Reynolds said. "But in the end it did what it was supposed to do."

The main spacecraft, however, will release a tiny companion, LICIACube, before destroying itself. LICIACube will record the parent spacecraft's final moments and beam the images and data back to Earth, according to the DART mission description.

Weather for the Tuesday night launch attempt is 90% favorable for launch, according to the U.S. Space Force. In case of a delay, SpaceX and NASA are prepared to try repeatedly over a period of 84 days.

SpaceX is tracking no problems, Julianna Scheiman, SpaceX director for civil satellite missions, said during the press conference.

"Everything on the rocket is looking great for our launch attempt," she said.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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