NASA will today attempt a feat humanity has never before accomplished: deliberately flying a spacecraft into an asteroid to slightly deflect its orbit, in a key test of the planet's ability to stop cosmic objects from devastating life on Earth.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spaceship launched from California last November and is fast approaching its target, which it will strike at roughly 22,500km/h.

To be sure, neither the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, nor the big brother it orbits, called Didymos, pose any threat as the pair loop the Sun, passing about seven million miles from Earth at nearest approach.

But NASA has deemed the experiment important to carry out before an actual need is discovered.

If all goes to plan, impact between the car-sized spacecraft, and the 530ft asteroid should take place shortly after midnight Irish time, and can be followed on a NASA livestream.

By striking Dimorphos head on, NASA hopes to push it into a smaller orbit, shaving ten minutes off the time it takes to encircle Didymos, which is currently 11 hours and 55 minutes - a change that will be detected by ground telescopes in the days that follow.

People sit at their workstations within the Mission Operations Centre

The proof-of-concept experiment will make a reality of what has before only been attempted in science fiction - notably films such as "Armageddon" and "Don't Look Up."

As the craft propels itself through space, flying autonomously for the mission's final phase, its camera system will start to beam down the very first pictures of Dimorphos.

Minutes later, a toaster-sized satellite called LICIACube, which separated from DART a couple of weeks earlier, will make a close pass of the site to capture images of the collision and the ejecta - the pulverized rock thrown off by impact.

LICIACube's pictures will be sent back in the weeks and months that follow.

Also watching the event: an array of telescopes, both on Earth and in space - including the recently operational James Webb - which might be able to see a brightening cloud of dust.

Finally, a full picture of what the system looks like will be revealed when a European Space Agency mission four years down the line called Hera arrives to survey Dimorphos's surface and measure its mass, which scientists can only guess at currently.

Very few of the billions of asteroids and comets in our solar system are considered potentially hazardous to our planet, and none are expected in the next hundred or so years.

"I guarantee to you that if you wait long enough, there will be an object," said NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen.

It is known that from geological record for example, the six-mile wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, plunging the world into a long winter that led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs along with 75% of all species.

An asteroid the size of Dimorphos, by contrast, would only cause a regional impact, such as devastating a city, albeit with greater force than any nuclear bomb in history.

How much momentum DART imparts on Dimorphos will depend on whether the asteroid is solid rock, or more like a "rubbish pile" of boulders bound by mutual gravity, a property that's not yet known.

The shape of the asteroid is also not known, but NASA engineers are confident DART's SmartNav guidance system will hit its target.

If it misses, NASA will have another shot in two years' time, with the spaceship containing just enough fuel for another pass.

But if it succeeds, the mission will mark the first step towards a world capable of defending itself from a future existential threat.

Mission to moon is delayed again

NASA's Artemis 1 rocket - waiting to blast off on a delayed mission to the Moon - will be rolled back into its storage hangar tonight, the space agency said, as Florida braces for Hurricane Ian.

The move, to protect the rocket from strong winds and heavy rain forecast for the Kennedy Space Center, will cause further setbacks for the uncrewed Moon mission, which was scheduled to launch last month and has already been pushed back three times.

"After reviewing the forecast for Ian, we will roll our Artemis I vehicle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building tonight," NASA official Jim Free tweeted.

"It was the right and necessary decision to keep our people and hardware safe."

NASA had waited until the last minute to decide whether to shelter Artemis I in the hope of being able to schedule a take-off attempt just after the storm passed.

There will now be no opportunity for blast-off within the current launch window, which runs until 4 October, and NASA has not indicated when another launch might be attempted.