NASA begins DART mission to practice pushing away an asteroid, with an extra push from Aerojet

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket fires to launch NASA’s Dart asteroid probe from Vandenberg Space Force Station in California. (NASA via YouTube).

A space probe the size of a school bus is on its way to smash an asteroid the size of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, guided by a thruster system built by Aerojet Rocketdyne In Redmond, Wash.

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This is no “Armageddon,” and there’s no need for Bruce Willis to ride to the rescue. But this experiment is expected to help scientists figure out how to divert a dangerous asteroid toward Earth if needed. It’s a giant leap forward for planetary defense — and for Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose Redmond thrusters have been used in dozens of space missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” said Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s executive director for space. “But this is the first time we’ve ever done something that’s really planned out as a defense against the dangers of life on Earth. What we’re going to test here is really about itself as a species.” The first step is to prepare and respond if we are ever threatened with something like this.”

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of nasa double asteroid redirection test The mission, or DART, got off to a great start with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. At the end of the smooth countdown, liftoff occurred at 10:21 a.m. PT.

Minutes after launch, the second stage of the rocket separated from the booster of the first stage and went into orbit, while the booster flew back to land on a drone ship based in the Pacific. Within an hour of launch, the second stage was due to deploy the Dart spacecraft and send it on its way.

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Tonight’s launch marked the first leg of a 10-month journey to the double-asteroid system that will be about 7 million miles from Earth at the time of the encounter. The larger asteroid, called Didymos, is about half a mile wide – but it is not Dart’s target. Instead, Aerojet’s thrusters will guide the spacecraft to collide with the smaller asteroid, known as Dimorphos.

Dimorphos, which is about 525 feet wide, orbits Didymos like our moon orbits Earth. In fact, the asteroid was nicknamed “Didymoon” before it was gave his official name Last year. Dimorphos makes a complete circuit in 11.9 hours, and if all goes well, the researchers expect that the kinetic effects of Dart’s collision will shorten that orbital period by several minutes.

There is no chance that Dimorphos will break off, fall out of orbit or head in the direction of Earth – which is usually the case in movies like “Armageddon” (starring Bruce Willis) or “don’t look up” (Premiering next month on Netflix).

“We chose it for the reason that it’s completely safe,” Cassady said. “Even if we miss, or we don’t complete the mission we thought we would do, there will never be any threat to Earth. And if we hit it hard enough, then There will also be no danger to the earth.”

Mission controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory have programmed the probe to autonomously control Aerojet’s onboard thruster system, so that it can clear dimorphos at about 15,000 mph.

A shoebox-shaped, Italian-made piggyback probe—known as The Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids, or LICIACube – will be deployed from the main spacecraft 10 days prior to the encounter and will be hung back to capture images of the smash-ups from a safe distance. Meanwhile, Dart will send back images of Dimorphos all the way up to the moment of impact.

Based on NASA’s experience a 2005 comet-smashing mission called Deep Impact, Dart’s destruction must be a real blast. In fact, it can take years for the dust to settle down. To get a clearer picture after the collision, the European Space Agency is planning Launch a reconnaissance probe for a double-asteroid system in 2024.

Dimorphos is much younger than the mega-asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. but it’s much bigger than that 65-foot-wide asteroid that spectacularly smashed over Siberia in 2013 And a bright spotlight turned on the potential threat from asteroids and comets. An asteroid the size of Dimorphos could wipe out a city if it just hit the wrong spot.

For this reason, scientists will closely analyze the Dart mission findings and factoring them into their calculations to change the path of the dangerous asteroid – perhaps with a dynamic impactor like Dart, or a “Gravity Tractor” which may make a subtle course correction, or nuclear explosion If time is short.

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

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne will also closely analyze DART’s performance, not just the planetary protection angle. The $330 million mission also marks the first use of space Next-C Electric Propulsion System, which was developed by Aerojet’s Redmond team in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Ohio-based ZIN Technologies.

The NEXT-C, which features a super-efficient, low-thrust xenon ion engine, will complement Aerojet’s more traditional, hydrazine-fueled MK-103G thruster system. “On Dart, we’re getting a good test,” Cassady said.

Cassady said Next-C would be suitable for deep space missions aimed at bringing back fragments of a comet or asteroid — perhaps the next phase of NASA’s campaign to develop a planetary defense system.

“It’s a good fit because Dart can use us,” he said. “It’s not as stressful for a mission as a comet sample return mission would be. But it’s good evidence that the engine can do what we’ve said it will do in space, and we’ll wipe out everything. It’s almost ours.” Shakedown is like cruise, and then we’ll prepare it for the next mission.

Check out these photos from tonight’s launch:



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