NASA launched world's first ever 'suicide' spacecraft to deflect asteroids

NASA has launched a mission to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid -- a world's first to test asteroid-deflecting technology. The space probe will crash into the asteroid to alter its speed and course.

Spacecraft heads off on a 6.8m-mile journey to crash into moonlet Dimorphos in a test to see if asteroids can be diverted from a collision with Earth.

Carried aboard a SpaceX-owned Falcon 9 rocket, the Dart (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft soared into the sky at 10.21 pm Pacific time from the Vandenberg US Space Force Base, about 150 miles (240km) north-west of Los Angeles.

The goal is to slightly alter the trajectory of Dimorphos, a "moonlet" around 525 feet (160 meters, or two Statues of Liberty) wide that circles a much larger asteroid called Didymos (2,500 feet in diameter). The pair orbit the Sun together.

The impact is expected to take place in the fall of 2022 when the binary asteroid system is 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometres) from Earth, almost the nearest point they ever get.

The test is to find out if the technology is enough if an actual asteroid impact threat were detected in the future.

"What we're trying to learn is how to deflect a threat," NASA's top scientist Thomas Zuburchen said of the $330 million projects, the first of its kind.

To be clear, the asteroids in question pose no threat to our planet, but they belong to a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which approach within 30 million miles.

It is the latest of several Nasa missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the solar system’s formation 4.6bn years ago.

Last month, Nasa launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft Osiris-Rex is on its way back to Earth with a sample collected in October last year from the asteroid Bennu.

The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by Nasa.

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