Early on Wednesday morning, Elon Musk’s SpaceX began executing a NASA mission to fire a rocket into an asteroid.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test will determine whether colliding a rocket into a space object can change its trajectory, thereby protecting Earth from serious impacts.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 24, 2021
The New York Times explained:
NASA is crashing DART into an asteroid to test, for the first time, a method of planetary defense that could one day save a city, or maybe the whole planet, from a catastrophic asteroid impact…
If all goes as planned with DART, NASA will have a confirmed weapon in its planetary defense arsenal. Should a different asteroid ever wind up on a collision course with Earth, the world’s space agencies would have confidence that an asteroid missile like DART would shoo the space rock away.
The New York Times noted, however, that the spaceship will not make contact with any asteroids until next year:
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.
SpaceX — founded by Elon Musk in 2002 — has developed reusable rockets that can land themselves. In the past 18 months, SpaceX tested a prototype of its Starship rocket, which will eventually take passengers to Mars; launched dozens of satellites; and carried two American astronauts to the International Space Station — the first time astronauts have launched from American soil in nearly a decade.
Indeed, federal entities are increasingly relying upon SpaceX rockets to carry its vessels into space. The United States Space Force will allow SpaceX’s reused rockets to carry military satellites, and earlier this year, NASA tapped SpaceX to study whether Europa — a moon of Jupiter — has conditions that could support life. A Falcon Heavy rocket will take the Europa Clipper vessel into space in October 2024.
SpaceX says that Falcon Heavy is “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two,” as it can lift payloads of nearly 141,000 pounds into orbit. The vehicle’s core booster and two side boosters have a combined 27 Merlin engines, which can generate more than five million pounds of thrust upon takeoff.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile this summer that circumnavigated the planet before taking aim at its target — a test that has stunned the Biden administration and sped international competition in space.