SpaceX is launching a NASA spacecraft that will crash into an asteroid

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  • Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch the first of its kind planetary defense mission for NASA early Wednesday morning.
  • “We’re hitting an asteroid,” said Omar Baez, senior launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program.
  • The mission is known as the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (or DART). NASA is trying to figure out how to remove a threat if it is headed toward Earth.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch a first-of-its-kind planetary defense mission for NASA early Wednesday morning, sending the spacecraft on its way to intentionally crash into an asteroid.

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“We’re hitting an asteroid,” Omar Baez, senior launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program, said during a press conference. “I can’t believe we’re doing this”

Known as the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (or DART) mission, the space agency is trying to learn how to “deflect an oncoming threat” toward Earth, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen. he said.

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“Be assured, that 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 the liftoff window beginning Wednesday at 1:20 p.m. ET.

Dart is a 610 kg spacecraft that will travel for 10 months to a pair of asteroids named Didymos and Dimorphos. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland built the Dart, while the space company Redwire contributed to the spacecraft’s navigation and the solar arrays that would power it.

The mission’s goal is to hit the smaller of the two asteroids, Dimorphos, with a spacecraft at about 15,000 mph and see how the impact changes the asteroid’s trajectory.

The DART mission has cost NASA about $330 million in total, with SpaceX winning a $69 million contract in 2019 for the launch. This is not only NASA’s first planetary defense mission, but DART also represents SpaceX’s first mission to launch a spacecraft into another planetary body.

“This is just the best mission ever. Thank you all for being part of a really important planetary defense mission to SpaceX,” said Juliana Schemann, SpaceX Director of Civil Satellite Missions during a press conference.

SpaceX tested its Falcon 9 rocket last Friday in preparation for launch.

To give a sense of scale, the Dimorphos asteroid is about the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, while the Didymos asteroid is wider in diameter than the One World Trade Center tower in New York City. After arriving at the asteroids, and before it breaks up into dimorphos, the Dart spacecraft will deploy a small cube satellite to take pictures of the impact event.

While the mission is testing a method of planetary defense, Zurbuchen stressed that NASA is not aware of any near-term exposure to Earth. There are billions of asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun, but few of them have the potential to hit Earth for a very long time.

“None of the near-Earth objects we know today pose any threat within 100 years,” Zurbuchen said.

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