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NASA launches its first asteroid-deflecting spaceship

Named DART, the spacecraft has no other purpose but to slam into and redirect an asteroid 6.8 million miles out in space. It’s the first planetary defence mission of its kind.

Considering that we exist on a floating rock in the endless, chaotic abyss of the universe, NASA’s plan to practice deterring an asteroid from hitting our planet is warranted.

Though DART’s target isn’t a threat to Earth at present, there are at least one million known asteroids in our solar system – and predicting when a dangerous one might enter our sphere can be tricky.

That’s why, in the early hours of this morning, DART blasted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and began its mission to attempt throwing an asteroid named Dimorphos off its orbit.

The mission, which cost the space industry £240 million, is the first of its kind. It only aims to knock Dimorphos’ course off by a fraction, but if successful, it will make NASA all the wiser in protecting humanity from potentially experiencing a similar fate to dinosaurs.

Credit: John Hopkins

If it struck Earth, cosmic debris the size of Dimorphous (160m wide) would have a similar impact to a nuclear bomb, with the ability to wipe out the population of a large nation.

Any object larger than 300m wide would cause destruction to entire continents, and 1km wide asteroids would be capable of obliterating the whole planet.

NASA has previously stated that although major asteroid impacts on Earth aren’t exactly common, the danger posed by smaller asteroids has been massively underplayed.

In fact, between 2000-2013, at least 26 asteroids hit Earth. In multiple strokes of luck, all of them landed in bodies of water and were partially broken up by the atmosphere before touching down.

Many of these asteroids went undetected until mere hours before they struck, primarily because the sun’s glare blocks Earth-based telescopes from capturing them.

The good news is, there don’t appear to be any asteroids on course to hit us anytime soon.

Once NASA becomes an expert in altering the path of cosmic debris, space junk and other things flying around in space, we should be in the clear. DART is the size of a small car, but it would only take an impact from something the size of a brick to do so.

We’ll have to wait until September 2022 to see if DART is successful – the event will be captured by an onboard camera called Draco – but until then, there shouldn’t be any reason to worry about any mega-asteroid impacts in the near future.

Just as long as that pesky sun glare doesn’t block our vision, eh?