NASA has successfully launched the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission, which will collide with an asteroid.

The DART mission launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 1:21 a.m. ET on November 24 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA TV and the agency's website broadcast live coverage of the event. The space agency also shared the highlights of the launch in a tweet.

The mission will travel for nearly a year to an asteroid system about 6.5 million kilometers from Earth. Dimorphos, a 525-foot-wide space rock that circles a much bigger asteroid named Didymos, which spans roughly 2,500 feet across, is the mission's objective.

According to NASA (via Science Times), neither Dimorphos nor Didymos represent a threat to Earth. Still, the system offers an "ideal testing ground" for whether crashing a spaceship into an asteroid can successfully modify the asteroid's path in space.

NASA Invited 'Armageddon' Star Bruce Willis For The Launch

NASA administrator Bill Nelson invited Bruce Willis to watch the launch due to his 1998 sci-fi disaster film "Armageddon." However, the actor declined the invite, Fox Business reported.

Nelson invited the actor because the agency "did not want to miss that connection." 

Willis' spokesperson did not immediately reply for comment when Fox Business reached out to them.

Willis trended on Twitter after the launch. One Twitter user jokingly wished him luck for his mission. Another asked if he could make it back in time for the holidays. Meanwhile, one addressed his absence saying he didn't make it because he was "Moonlighting," referring to his comedy-drama TV series in ABC from 1985 to 1989.

NASA DART Mission Explained

NASA's DART probe will collide with Dimorphos at a speed of roughly 15,000 mph next September or October 2022. According to NBC News, Earth's telescopes have studied Didymos and its "moonlet," Dimorphos for decades. Experts discovered that the smaller space rock orbits its larger counterpart once every 11 hours and 55 minutes.

A team led by Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the mission's coordination lead, hopes to explore if Dimorphos' almost 12-hour orbit may be altered by the cosmic encounter. The move is expected to vary the speed of the space rock's orbit by a fraction of a percent - a difference of only a few minutes - but ground-based telescopes should be able to detect the shift.

A follow-up mission proposed by the European Space Agency will investigate the Didymos system in greater depth and examine the DART probe's deflection results. Hera, the mission, is scheduled to launch in October 2024.

 NASA DART Spacecraft Mission Will Crash on an Asteroid This Week; Scientists Say Earth Won't Be At Risk
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration of DART on course to impact Didymos B, viewed from behind the DART spacecraft

ALSO READ: NASA Scientists Testing Asteroid Deflection Methods To Prevent Space Rocks From Hitting Earth

Space Agency Unveils Next Move if DART Mission is Successful

If the test is successful, the New York Times said NASA will have a proven weapon in its inventory for planetary defense. However, astronomers suggest that for asteroids larger than Dimorphos, other conceptual deflection strategies may be more appropriate. For example, a fleet of impactor spacecraft, similar to the mission concept utilized by astronomers in the Tokyo simulation, may be deployed to change the trajectory of a larger asteroid.

Another untested deflection method for potentially hazardous asteroids that are at least 10 years away from impacting Earth is a "gravity tractor" spacecraft that would orbit or hover near to the asteroid for years and exert a small gravitational effect, slowly tugging the rock away from Earth.

NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, expressed confidence that DART's collision would alter the asteroid's orbit. He remarked that the odds are at 100 percent despite having the challenges in making momentum while destroying the asteroid.

RELATED ARTICLE: NASA Dart Asteroid Mission: What Makes This Non-Threatening Armageddon Task Special?

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