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Space Force, NASA, SpaceX launching spacecraft to crash into massive asteroid in ‘first of its kind’ test

Vandenberg AFB gets new U.S. Space Force name (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Rocio Romo)
November 23, 2021

Vandenberg Space Force Base announced it will help launch a rocket designed to strike an asteroid as part of NASA’s first planetary defense test mission on Tuesday.

According to the Space Force press release, Team Vandenberg is working with SpaceX and NASA to execute the mission. A SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch carrying NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) from Space Launch Complex-4 on Vandenberg Base at 10:20 p.m. Pacific Time.

“The spacecraft is designed to direct itself to impact an asteroid while traveling at a speed of roughly 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kilometers per hour). Its target is the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos (Greek for “two forms”), which orbits a larger asteroid named Didymos (Greek for “twin”),” the press release explained. “In fall 2022, DART is projected to impact Dimorphos to change its orbit within the Didymos binary asteroid system.”

The release stated that the Didymos system is the best target for DART because “it poses no actual impact threat to Earth” and scientists will be able to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit from the ground.

Space Launch Delta 30 commander, Col. Rob Long, will be the launch decision authority.

“Space Launch Delta 30 is excited to partner with NASA and SpaceX on the first planetary defense test mission,” Long said.  “Everyone involved has been working tirelessly to ensure this launch is safe and successful.  I’m proud of their efforts.”

NASA is providing coverage of prelaunch and launch activities for the mission that will “help determine if intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid is an effective way to change its course.”

NASA tweeted an animated video depicting the mission that the agency called “the first planetary defense method of its kind” that puts the United States at the “crossroads of science fiction and reality.”

“The collision will change the speed of the moonlet in its orbit around the main body by a fraction of one percent, but this will change the orbital period of the moonlet by several minutes — enough to be observed and measured using telescopes on Earth,” according to NASA.

The agency said that while “no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years,” just around 40 percent of those asteroids have been located as of October 2021.