NASA asteroid mission takes off in historic BA42 assault

Image copyright NASA Image caption The BA42 will smash into the asteroid on 29 September A SpaceX spacecraft and its mothership have blasted off in a historic launch to smash into an asteroid. The…

NASA asteroid mission takes off in historic BA42 assault

Image copyright NASA Image caption The BA42 will smash into the asteroid on 29 September

A SpaceX spacecraft and its mothership have blasted off in a historic launch to smash into an asteroid.

The spacecraft is the first in a new breed of smaller, more efficient craft designed to withstand the elements.

It will use onboard engine technology to reach the asteroid Bennu and crash through its surface, a feat never before accomplished.

The problem is that Bennu is not much to look at, scientists say.

The Bureau of Meteorology, however, predicts it may be bright enough to see on the night of the 28th, and the 28th and 29th at the latest. You can see whether it will be visible by visiting this site.

Scientists will analyse the impact scars left by the crash, which they hope will reveal the origin of the mass of space rocks there.

The mission will help them understand the origin of the solar system and its habitable zones. The spacecraft will be travelling closer to the sun than any previous space probe.

It is designed to hit the asteroid when it is between 51,700km (33,000 miles) and 103,000km from the sun, according to mission researchers.

Photo caption: A music video celebrating the planned NASA crash

Destruction

BA 42/Deep Space 1, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Saturday, is a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Both space agencies are hoping to send other spacecraft to crash into asteroids as part of a larger initiative, which is known as the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification – Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx).

These craft will retrieve some of the minerals produced during the impact and bring them back to Earth for further study.

A scientific collision has been predicted since Bennu was discovered in 1998. The asteroid is one of the solar system’s potentially hazardous objects (PHOs), which the asteroid belt straddles.

Bennu, or “the big rock”, could pose a risk to life on Earth.

Depending on the target impact and composition of the asteroid, the event could be a minor 1cm-2cm earthquake or be much more devastating, potentially wiping out an entire city or continent.

In 2001, an asteroid called Toutatis also hit Earth, causing minor damage.

“Today’s launch marks an important moment in humanity’s progress toward learning more about the past, present and future of our home planet,” said NASA associate administrator Dan Cryer.

The spacecraft is set to be dropped onto Bennu in 2025, aiming to measure the asteroid’s composition.

“The ability to reach and destroy a near-Earth object will be invaluable in defining the orbits and sizes of asteroid threats in the future, and possibly even determining their future orbits that could carry a significant risk to Earth,” said Dr Jon Cieslak, the principal investigator for the Osiris-Rex mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The mission will be one of the first to use new software-defined engines for deep space, that are about to be tested by SpaceX.

On the ground

The Near-Earth Object (NEO) Processing Center, or known as “Ground Control”, will provide monitoring of the Bennu impact.

One of its main roles will be to deal with potential flare-ups of electricity from the collision, to control the spacecraft and operate the onboard instruments.

The centre is based at the same facility as the Advanced Light Source, an ultra-powerful light source that is the sole source of all commercially available light sources on Earth.

The building has been modified in order to accommodate new observing instruments and a small electric grid necessary to power the new space vehicles.

Astronomers were originally worried that the centre would be inundated with incoming electricity, but the staff have been trained to deal with it.

Ground Control will start to receive the flight signal from BA 42/Deep Space 1 this coming week.

The centre may not be made available for public viewing, but NASA hopes that perhaps some of its content will be uploaded to its official website.

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