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Illustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

SpaceX is set to launch a NASA spacecraft on a mission to learn how to change the course of an asteroid in deep space.

Why it matters: The mission — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — will test the technology needed to redirect a dangerous asteroid if one is ever found on course with Earth.

Driving the news: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is expected to launch DART to space at 1:21 a.m. ET Wednesday.

  • NASA will air live coverage of the launch starting at 12:30 a.m. ET Tuesday, for all you night owls.

How it works: Once in space, DART will make its way to a tiny asteroid called a "moonlet" named Dimorphos that orbits the larger asteroid Didymos.

  • DART, which will weigh about 1,345 pounds at launch, will slam into Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 to see if it can shift the course of the moonlet.
  • The asteroid system isn't in danger of impacting Earth, making it a good target for this type of experiment. It's also positioned well for scientists on Earth to monitor the two asteroids in the system with observatories on the ground.
  • "The right time to deflect an asteroid is as far away from the Earth as we can," Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer for NASA, said during a news conference. "The farther away in space it is... the less force it takes to change the orbit enough that it will be a miss instead of a hit."

The big picture: NASA and other space agencies track potentially dangerous asteroids as they make their way around the Sun.

  • NASA says its found 90% of all the near-Earth objects 3,280 feet long or larger, and the agency is now working on finding 90% of those types of objects that are 459 feet long or larger.
  • As of June 2021, the agency had found about 40% of the asteroids in that smaller size range.

What to watch: Eventually, new telescopes on the ground and in space, like the Near-Earth Object Surveyor space telescope currently in development at NASA, will allow scientists to find and track asteroids that are difficult to see today.

Go deeper

Dec 1, 2021 - Science

Harris says Russia's anti-satellite test was "irresponsible"

Vice President Kamala Harris at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in November. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Russia's destructive test of an anti-satellite missile last month that created at least 1,500 pieces of space debris was "irresponsible" Vice President Kamala Harris said at the annual National Space Council meeting Wednesday.

Why it matters: Harris stressed that the test and its aftermath showed why new international behavioral norms and regulations are needed to help maintain space as a relatively safe environment.

Updated 7 mins ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life. The 11 charges she faces have been widely criticised as politically motivated.

3 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"