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NASA prepares to send spacecraft crashing into an asteroid

DART, which stands for "double asteroid redirection test," will attach to a SpaceX rocket and launch Tuesday night from California.

LOMPOC, Calif — On Tuesday night, NASA will launch a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid in an attempt to redirect it — like a scene out of Armageddon, except this time there won't be any Bruce Willis heroics saving Ben Affleck at the last minute.  

The mission is called DART, which stands for "double asteroid redirection test," and is scheduled to launch Tuesday at 10:21 p.m. PST from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

"DART is the first ever planetary defense mission in which we are trying to test a technique to deflect the asteroid." said Eric Ianson, deputy director for NASA's planetary science division. "One of the things we want to do is test out this technology to be able to autonomously intercept the asteroid and then we're gonna see what we learned from it. We're gonna be able to take measurements from earth, so they'll take some time in order to be able to analyze that data."

Traveling at 14,000 miles per hour at impact, NASA will attempt to redirect Dimorphos, a smaller asteroid (525 feet across) that's about the size of the Washington Monument.

Dimorphos is the moonlet orbiting around a larger asteroid — Didymos — which measures 2,500 feet across and is located some 6 million miles away. NASA says neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth.

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"This provides a perfect laboratory in which to run this test. Since the smaller asteroid is orbiting the larger one at a relatively slow speed, when you make an impact and change the orbit it's easier to be able to detect what that change in orbit is. Much easier than it would be to measure the change in orbit of an asteroid revolving around the sun," Ianson said.

According to NASA, there are no known asteroids threatening to impact Earth within the next 100 years, but say the threat of the unknown always exists. Ianson said this will prepare them to see how a deflection works should a threat arise.

The impact will slightly alter the speed of Dimorphos by just a fraction of a percent, which is a difference of only several minutes — a difference NASA will be able to monitor from telescopes on the ground.

"The key thing is the technologies have not been available to really conduct this test properly, but now we do have the technology and the automated guidance system. So 20 years ago we probably wouldn't have been able to do this," Ianson said, "We have the right technology now."

Impact of DART into Dimorphos won't occur until September of 2022.