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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA’s DART asteroid probe from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. (NASA by way of YouTube)

An area probe the dimensions of a college bus is on its option to smash into an asteroid the dimensions of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, directed by thruster methods constructed by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

This is not any “Armageddon,” and there’s no want for Bruce Willis to experience to the rescue. But the experiment is predicted to assist scientists work out easy methods to divert a harmful asteroid heading for Earth ought to the necessity come up. That’s one large leap for planetary protection — and for Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose made-in-Redmond thrusters have been used on dozens of house missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” stated Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s govt director for house. “But this is the first time we’ve ever done something that’s really truly planned as a defense against threats to life on Earth. The test we’re going to do here is really the first step in getting ourselves ready as a species to react and respond if we ever are threatened in that way.”

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, received off to a showy begin with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Liftoff occurred at 10:21 p.m. PT, on the finish of a clean countdown.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster and proceeded to orbit, whereas the booster flew itself again to an at-sea touchdown on a drone ship stationed within the Pacific. Within an hour after launch, the second stage deployed the DART spacecraft and despatched it on its manner.

Tonight’s launch marked the primary leg of a 10-month journey to a double-asteroid system that’ll be practically 7 million miles away from Earth on the time of the encounter. The bigger asteroid, referred to as Didymos, is about half a mile broad — however that’s not DART’s goal. Instead, Aerojet’s thrusters will information the spacecraft to hit the smaller asteroid, often called Dimorphos.

Dimorphos, which is about 525 ft broad, orbits Didymos like our moon orbits Earth. In reality, the asteroid was nicknamed “Didymoon” earlier than it was given its official title final 12 months. Dimorphos makes an entire circuit in 11.9 hours, and if every part goes excellent, researchers count on the kinetic impact of DART’s collision to shorten that orbital interval by as a lot as a number of minutes.

There’s no likelihood that Dimorphos will break up, veer out of orbit or head in Earth’s path — which is what sometimes occurs in films like “Armageddon” (starring Bruce Willis) or “Don’t Look Up” (premiering subsequent month on Netflix).

“We picked it for the reason that it’s perfectly safe,” Cassady stated. “Even if we miss, or we don’t accomplish the mission that we thought we would, there’s never going to be a danger to Earth. And if we hit it too hard, there still won’t be a danger to Earth.”

Mission controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory have programmed the probe to regulate Aerojet’s onboard thruster methods autonomously, in order that it hits Dimorphos cleanly at a velocity of about 15,000 mph.

A shoebox-sized, Italian-built piggyback probe — often called the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids, or LICIACube — can be deployed from the primary spacecraft 10 days earlier than the encounter and cling again to seize pictures of the smash-up from a secure distance. Meanwhile, DART can be sending again pictures of Dimorphos all the way in which up to date of influence.

Based on NASA’s expertise with a comet-smashing mission in 2005 referred to as Deep Impact, DART’s destruction needs to be an actual blast. In reality, it may take years for the mud to settle. In order to get a transparent image of the collision’s aftermath, the European Space Agency is planning to launch a reconnaissance probe to the double-asteroid system in 2024.

Dimorphos is much smaller than the mega-asteroid that worn out the dinosaurs 66 million years in the past. But it’s far greater than the 65-foot-wide asteroid that broke up spectacularly over Siberia in 2013 and turned a brighter highlight on the potential menace from asteroids and comets. An asteroid the dimensions of Dimorphos may wipe out a metropolis if it hit in simply the flawed place.

For that purpose, scientists will intently analyze the findings from the DART mission and factoring them into their calculations for altering the trail of a threatening asteroid — maybe with a kinetic impactor like DART, or a “gravity tractor” that might make a subtler course correction, or a nuclear blast if time is brief.

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

Members of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond group showcase a thruster meeting. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Photo)

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne will intently analyze DART’s efficiency as properly, and never simply due to the planet safety angle. The $330 million mission additionally marks the primary in-space use of the NEXT-C electrical propulsion system, which was developed by Aerojet’s Redmond group in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Ohio-based ZIN Technologies.

NEXT-C, which includes a super-efficient, low-thrust xenon ion engine, will complement Aerojet’s extra conventional, hydrazine-fueled MK-103G thruster system. “On DART, we’re getting a good test,” Cassady stated.

Cassady stated NEXT-C could be well-suited for deep-space missions geared toward bringing again items of a comet or an asteroid — maybe within the subsequent section of NASA’s marketing campaign to develop a planetary protection system.

“It’s a good fit because DART could use us,” he stated. “It’s not as stressful of a mission as a comet sample return mission would be. But it’s a good proof that the engine can do the things we’ve said it will do in space, and we’ll wring everything out. It’s almost like our shakedown cruise, and then we’ll have it ready for that next mission.”

Check out these pictures of tonight’s launch:



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