NASA begins DART mission to hit an asteroid, with the help of Aerojet

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off to launch NASA’s DART asteroid probe from the Vandenberg Space Station in California. (NASA via YouTube).

A space probe the size of a school bus is on its way to slam into an asteroid the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, driven by propulsion systems built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

This isn’t “Armageddon,” and Bruce Willis doesn’t need to come to the rescue. But the experiment is expected to help scientists figure out how to redirect a dangerous asteroid heading toward Earth if the need arises. It’s a giant leap for planetary protection – and for the Aerojet Rocketdyne, the Redmond-built booster has been used on dozens of space missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” said Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s chief space officer. “But this is the first time we’ve done something really planned as a safeguard against threats to life on Earth. The experiment that we’re going to do here is really the first step in getting us ready as a species to react and respond if we’re threatened in that way. “

From NASA Double asteroid navigation test The mission, or DART, got off to a brilliant start with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The lift-off occurred at 10:21 p.m. Pacific Time, at the end of a smooth countdown.

Minutes after launch, the second stage of the rocket separated from the first stage booster and continued to orbit, while the booster flew back on its own as it landed at sea on an unmanned aircraft. drivers stationed in the Pacific. Within an hour of launch, the second stage is to deploy the DART spacecraft and get it on track.

Tonight’s launch marks the first leg of a 10-month journey to a two-asteroid system that will be nearly 7 million miles from Earth at the time of the collision. The larger asteroid, called Didymos, is about half a mile wide – but that’s not the goal of DART. Instead, the Aerojet’s propulsion will guide the spacecraft into a smaller asteroid, known as Dimorphos.

The small object, about 525 feet wide, orbits Didymos just as our moon orbits Earth. In fact, the asteroid was nicknamed “Didymoon” before it was its official name last year. Dimorphos makes a complete circuit in 11.9 hours, and if all goes well, the researchers hope DART’s collision kinetics will shorten that orbital period to a few minutes.

It’s not likely that the Dimorphos will break apart, fly out of orbit, or head towards Earth – which is what often happens in movies like “Apocalypse” (starring Bruce Willis) or “Don’t look up” (shows next month on Netflix).

“We chose it because it’s completely safe,” says Cassady. “Even if we miss, or we don’t complete the mission we thought we would, there would never be a risk to the Earth. And if we hit it too hard, it still won’t endanger the Earth.”

Mission controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory programmed the probe to control the Aerojet’s onboard propulsion system automatically, so that it thrashed the Dimorphos with about 15,000 miles per hour.

An Italian-made, shoebox-sized piggyback probe – called Light Italian CubeSat for Asteroid Photography, or LICIACube – will be deployed from the main spacecraft 10 days before the encounter and re-hang to photograph the explosion from a safe distance. Meanwhile, DART will send back images of the Dimorphos up to the time of impact.

Based on NASA’s experience with The 2005 comet-smashing mission was called Deep Impact, the destruction of the DART would be a real blast. In fact, it can take years for the dust to settle. To get a clear picture of the consequences of the collision, the European Space Agency is planning launch a probe to the two asteroid system in 2024.

Dimorphos is much smaller than the super-asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But it’s much bigger than The 65-foot-wide asteroid made a spectacular break in Siberia in 2013 and brings a brighter focus to the potential threat from asteroids and comets. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos could wipe out an entire city if it hit the wrong place.

For that reason, scientists will closely analyze the findings from the DART mission and include them in their calculations to change the path of a threatening asteroid – possibly with a different effect. kinematics such as DART, or “Gravity Tractor” that can do more sophisticated course editing or nuclear explosion if the time is short.

“It’s good to be prepared,” Cassady said.

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne will also closely analyze the performance of the DART, not just because of the planet’s protective angle. The $330 million mission also marks the first in-space use of NEXT-C electric propulsion system, was developed by Aerojet’s Redmond team in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Ohio-based ZIN Technologies.

The NEXT-C, featuring an ultra-efficient, low-thrust xenon ion engine, will complement the more traditional MK-103G propulsion system, which uses Aerojet’s hydrazine fuel. “On DART, we’re having a good test,” Cassady said.

Cassady says NEXT-C would be well-suited for deep space missions that aim to bring back fragments of comets or asteroids – perhaps in the next phase of the planetary defenses development campaign. NASA planet.

“It was a good fit because DART could use us,” he said. “It’s not as stressful a mission as a comet sample return mission. But it’s good proof that the engine can do the things that we said it would in space, and we’re going to squeeze everything out. It’s almost like our debugging journey, and then we’ll get ready for that next mission. “

Check out the photos from tonight’s launch:

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