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NASA launches a suicide spacecraft to deflect an asteroid.

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The DART probe, the size of a vehicle, will collide with the Dimorphos'moonlet' at over 24,000 kilometres per hour in an attempt to knock it off track.

NASA launched a mission to purposely collide with an asteroid – a practice run in case mankind ever has to stop a massive space rock from wiping out life on Earth.

The DART – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – may sound like science fiction, but it is a true proof-of-concept experiment. It took out from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 10:21 p.m. Tuesday (06:21 a.m. GMT Wednesday) aboard a SpaceX rocket.

The idea is to slightly change Dimorphos' trajectory, a "moonlet" about 160 meters (525 feet) wide that circles Didymos, a much larger asteroid 762 meters (2,500 feet) in diameter. They share an orbit around the Sun.

The impact is expected in the third quarter of 2022, when the binary asteroid system is 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) from Earth, the closest they will ever get.

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

To be clear, the aforementioned asteroids pose no harm to the globe. They do, however, belong to a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which come within 48 million kilometer's of Earth (30 million miles).

The Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA is primarily interested in those that are greater than 140 metres (460 feet) in size and have the ability to level entire cities or areas with many times the energy of a typical nuclear bomb.

There are 10,000 known near-Earth asteroids of this size or larger, but none have a good chance of colliding with Earth in the next 100 years. One major caveat: scientists believe there are another 15,000 similar things out there waiting to be discovered.

While the NASA mission may sound like science fiction, planetary scientist Essam Heggy believes the threat to the earth is genuine if the demise of the dinosaurs 80 million years ago is remembered.

"The possibility of being hit by an asteroid again is far from science fiction," he told Al Jazeera. "Asteroids 100 meters and larger pose a hazard to the Earth, and we need to measure our ability to deflect these threats."

Planetary scientists can simulate asteroid collisions in the lab and use the results to develop complex models of how to redirect an asteroid — but models are always inferior to real-world experiments.

The Didymos-Dimorphos combination is a "perfect natural laboratory," according to scientists, because Earth-based telescopes can readily detect the brightness variation of the pair and calculate the time it takes the moonlet to orbit its big brother.

Because the current orbit period is known, the change will show the impact of the collision, which is predicted to take place between September 26 and October 1, 2022.

The DART probe, which is the size of a huge refrigerator and with solar panels the size of a limousine on either side, will ram into Dimorphos at more than 24,000 kilometers per hour (15,000 miles per hour).

The present orbital duration is 11 hours and 55 minutes, according to Andy Rivkin, the DART investigation team head, and the team anticipates the kick will cut that time by 10 minutes.

Because the internal composition and porosity of the moonlet are unknown, it is difficult to predict how much energy will be delivered by the impact.

The more debris that is generated, the greater push Dimorphos will receive.

"Every time we go to an asteroid, we find things we didn't expect to find," Rivkin added.

The DART mission also includes advanced navigation and imaging sensors, including as the Italian Space Agency's Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), which will monitor the crash and its aftermath.

"We're hoping that the CubeSat will provide us with the most magnificent image of DART's collision and the ejecta plume flowing off the asteroid." "That will be a genuinely historic and beautiful image," said DART's programme scientist, Tom Statler.

The "kinetic impactor" method is not the only means to redirect an asteroid, but it is the only one that is currently deployable with current technology.

Another possibility is to fly a spacecraft close by to impart a minor gravitational force.

Another option is to detonate a nuclear detonation nearby – but not on the item itself, as in the films Armageddon and Deep Impact – which would likely result in many more dangerous objects.

According to scientists, 140-metre asteroids strike once every 20,000 years.

Asteroids 10km (6 miles) or larger, such as the one that impacted 66 million years ago and wiped out most life on Earth, including dinosaurs, occur every 100-200 million years.

DART is the most recent of numerous NASA projects to examine and interact with asteroids, which are primordial stony relics of the solar system's origin 4.6 billion years ago.

NASA dispatched a mission to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter last month, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRES-REx is on its way back to Earth with a sample retrieved from the asteroid Bennu last October.