NASA has launched a spacecraft in the first test of technology that could save the planet from an asteroid impact.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will slam into a space rock and knock it off course.
The space agency said it was a “critical step” in demonstrating its ability to protect the planet from danger.
Even a cosmic object just 30 to 50 metres wide would be enough to cause significant damage to Earth.
DART’s target is Dimorphos, an orbiting “moonlet” about 160 metres across which does not currently pose a threat to the planet.
The spacecraft, roughly the size of a small car, will strike the smaller body at about four miles per second which is around 14000 mph.
“Not only is the DART mission a planetary defense demonstration, but so much of the spacecraft itself is new technology demonstration and being a part of a mission of firsts is stimulating,” said Julie Schneringer, NASA launch site integration manager.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the DART spacecraft blasted off at 6:20am on Wednesday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
DART is directed by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office charged with detecting the possibility and warn of potential asteroid or comet impacts with Earth, and then either prevent them or mitigate their possible effects.