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NASA’s DART mission will test a planetary defense strategy by smacking an asteroid

If all goes well, the spacecraft that NASA plans to launch Tuesday will smash itself to bits against an asteroid.

If all goes absolutely perfectly, that impact will jostle the asteroid into a slightly different orbit, meaning that for the first time, humans will have changed the trajectory of a celestial object.

Making history, however, is incidental. The real mission is to defend the planet.

No need to panic: The target space rock has no chance of striking Earth, nor does any other known asteroid for at least half a century. This NASA mission, operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., is testing a technique for redirecting an asteroid in case future Earth folk really need to bat one out of the way.

The basic idea could not be simpler: Hit it with a hammer! But the degree of difficulty is high, in part because no one has ever actually seen the asteroid NASA plans to nudge. It is a moonlet named Dimorphos that is about the size of a football stadium.

Sky watchers operating the world’s highest-powered telescopes detect the moonlet only as a shadow that crosses the larger asteroid it orbits, Didymos, as the two circle the sun together. The pair make up a “double asteroid,” a common arrangement in our solar system.

Here’s how the $330 million Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is supposed to work:

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