NASA launches spacecraft to test asteroid defense concept

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to knock a speeding space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.

The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a $330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon.”

If all goes well, the boxy, 1,200-pound (540-kilogram) craft will slam head-on into Dimorphos, an asteroid 525 feet (160 meters) across, at 15,000 mph (24,139 kph) next September.

“This isn’t going to destroy the asteroid. It’s just going to give it a small nudge,” said mission official Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project.

Dimorphos orbits a much larger asteroid called Didymos. The pair are no danger to Earth but offer scientists a better way to measure the effectiveness of a collision than a single asteroid flying through space.

Dimorphos completes one orbit of Didymos every 11 hours, 55 minutes. DART’s goal is a crash that will slow Dimorphos down and cause it to fall closer toward the bigger asteroid, shaving 10 minutes off its orbit.