If all goes as planned, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will launch early Wednesday morning “to test whether slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid can nudge it into a different trajectory,” reports The New York Times. “Results from the test, if successful, will come in handy if NASA and other space agencies ever need to deflect an asteroid to save Earth and avert a catastrophic impact.” From the report: The DART spacecraft is scheduled to lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday at 1:20 a.m. Eastern time (or 10:20 p.m. local time) from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. NASA plans to host a livestream of the launch on its YouTube channel starting at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday. If bad weather around the Vandenberg launch site prompts a delay, the next opportunity for liftoff would be about 24 hours later.
After launching to space, the spacecraft will make nearly one full orbit around the sun before it crosses paths with Dimorphos, a football-field-size asteroid that closely orbits a bigger asteroid, called Didymos, every 11 hours and 55 minutes. Astronomers call those two asteroids a binary system, where one is a mini-moon to the other. Together, the two asteroids make one full orbit around the sun every two years. Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth, and the mission is essentially target practice. DART’s impact will happen in late September or early October next year, when the binary asteroids are at their closest point to Earth, roughly 6.8 million miles away.
Four hours before impact, the DART spacecraft, formally called a kinetic impactor, will autonomously steer itself straight toward Dimorphos for a head-on collision at 15,000 miles per hour. An onboard camera will capture and send back photos to Earth in real time until 20 seconds before impact. A tiny satellite from the Italian Space Agency, deployed 10 days before the impact, will come as close as 34 miles from the asteroid to snap images every six seconds in the moments before and after DART’s impact.