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NASA has launched a one-way rocket mission aiming to smash directly into an asteroid as the US space agency prepares to defend Earth from Armageddon-style space rocks.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft took off at 6.21am this morning from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

It is NASA's first ever planetary defence mission.

The presenters commentating on the launch on NASA's live stream described how their building was "shaking" as the Falcon 9 went up.

Seven minutes into the launch they confirmed that everything was "nominal and on track" so far. At this point, the stage one rocket came off.

DART, which cost $330 million (£247 million), will be heading at 15,000mph towards the moonlet Dimorphos.

The plan is to crash the 19m craft into Dimorphos, which orbits are far larger asteroid in Didymos, to test how effectively we can alter the path of asteroids that may be heading our way in the future.

Neither Dimorphos or Didymos are coming near us, but that isn't to say that this threat from the skies isn't serious.

Dimorphos has a width of 170m and Didymos 780m.

Although those sizes seem insignificant compared to the size of Earth, if Didymos were to collide with us directly there would be apocalyptic consequences.

Objects of Dimorphos' size also have the potential to explode like nuclear bombs, only many times more powerfully.

Tom Statler, the mission's Program Scientist, explained before the launch: "There are a lot more small asteroids than there are large ones and so the most likely asteroid threat we ever have to face – if we ever have to face one – is probably going to be from an asteroid around this size."

Given that Dimorphos is 6.8 million miles away, it will take DART roughly 10 months to get there meaning that the all-important collision will take place in September or October next year.

6.8 million miles is close enough for NASA to observe the results of the collision, making the asteroids perfect for planetary defence testing.

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An Italian-made satellite called LICIACube is also onboard and will bail just before the collision to send pictures and data back to Earth.

NASA scientists will then scramble to analyse if, how, and by how much they managed to alter Dimorphos' orbital path around Didymos, with the aim being to change it very marginally.

Kelly Fast, from the Planetary Defence Coordination Office at NASA, explained: "DART will only be changing the period of the orbit of Dimorphos by a tiny amount.

"And really that's all that's needed in the event that an asteroid is discovered well ahead of time."

Earlier this month NASA's first-ever Planetary Defence Officer Lindley Johnson insisted that it is crucial we test this technology now even though there is no immediate threat.

He said: "We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to be testing this kind of capability."

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  • Space
  • Spaced Out
  • Asteroids
  • Nasa

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