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NASA launches DART asteroid mission to destroy a spacecraft to (potentially) save planet Earth

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. — NASA has launched its first planetary defense mission to practice what the agency might do if planet Earth were threatened by a wayward asteroid.

The agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched at 10:20 p.m. local time on Tuesday night, Nov. 23 (1:20 a.m. EDT, or 0620 GMT Nov. 24) from Space Launch Complex 4 here at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. DART took to the skies atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, set to travel millions of miles out to smash into an asteroid in a planetary defense test. 

"Liftoff of the Falcon 9 and DART on NASA's first planetary defense test to intentionally crash into an asteroid," NASA spokesperson Marie Lewis said during a live broadcast of the launch.

Related: NASA's DART asteroid-impact mission explained in pictures

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NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, launches atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, at 1:21 a.m. EST (0621 GMT) on Nov. 24, 2021.

NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, launches atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, at 1:21 a.m. EST (0621 GMT) on Nov. 24, 2021. (Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)
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A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A view from the Falcon 9 rocket 23 seconds after liftoff. (Image credit: SpaceX/NASA TV)
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A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX/NASA TV)
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A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX/NASA TV)
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A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test. (Image credit: SpaceX/NASA TV)
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A screenshot from NASA TV's webcast of the launch of the agency's Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

The Falcon 9 booster landed on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You." (Image credit: SpaceX/NASA TV)
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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft onboard is seen during sunrise at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on Nov. 23, 2021.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft onboard is seen during sunrise at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on Nov. 23, 2021. (Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)
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The Falcon 9 rocket with DART ready to launch Nov. 23, 2021 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The Falcon 9 rocket with DART ready to launch Nov. 23, 2021 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
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The DART spacecraft as seen inside a cleanroom before flight.

The DART spacecraft as seen inside a cleanroom before flight. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Nearly nine minutes after liftoff, the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster returned to Earth, nailing an upright landing on the company's drone ship named "Of Course I Still Love You," which was stationed in the Pacific Ocean. The landing at sea marked the 95th time that SpaceX has recovered an orbital class rocket booster.

DART is now on its way to conduct a planetary defense test. The mission will use a "kinetic impact technique," to alter the orbit of an asteroid. In other words, the spacecraft will smash into a space rock to change its direction. DART will impact a "moonlet" called Dimorphos that orbits around a much larger asteroid Didymos and the mission teams aims to shorten its orbit around Dimorphos by several minutes. 

An artist's depiction of the DART spacecraft approaching the Didymos system.

An artist's depiction of the DART spacecraft approaching the Didymos system. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

"It's an intentional crash of a spacecraft into a rock," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate said during a news conference on Monday (Nov. 22). "What we're trying to learn is how to deflect a threat."

Now, neither the asteroid nor its moonlet poses any danger of making their way toward Earth (even if the test doesn't go exactly as planned), experts have told Space.com

This asteroid system "has no chance of impacting the Earth whatsoever," astronomer Amy Mainzer, who is the principal investigator of NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission and who specializes in characterizing populations of asteroids and comets, told Space.com.

It's "an incredibly unlikely scenario," Mainzer said. However, there is the possibility that one day there could be an asteroid that poses serious danger to Earth and its inhabitants. 

However, this test will show NASA how a kinetic impact technique might work against an asteroid that does pose a threat. If in the future, a large asteroid were identified that threatened Earth in some way, NASA could theoretically send out a spacecraft like DART to smash into it and push it in a different direction.

Right now, no such threatening asteroid is known. However, as both Zurbuchen and Mainzer pointed out, scientists have only classified about 40% of all near-Earth objects. 

Now, scientists have cataloged roughly 90% of all near-Earth asteroids that are as large as the space rock that wiped out Earth's large dinosaurs millions of years ago, Cristina Thomas, a DART Observations Working Group Lead, told Space.com. However, there remain many smaller space rocks that have yet to be identified. 

The key aspect of defending planet Earth against rogue space rocks is time. 

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.