SpaceX DART launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA’s DART asteroid probe from Vandenberg House Pressure Base in California. (NASA through YouTube)

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

That is no “Armageddon,” and there’s no want for Bruce Willis to journey to the rescue. However the experiment is anticipated to assist scientists determine learn how to divert a harmful asteroid heading for Earth ought to the necessity come up. That’s one big 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 each planet within the photo voltaic system,” stated Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s government director for house. “However that is the primary time we’ve ever performed one thing that’s actually actually deliberate as a protection in opposition to threats to life on Earth. The check we’re going to do right here is de facto step one in getting ourselves prepared as a species to react and reply if we ever are threatened in that means.”

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, acquired off to a showy begin with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg House Pressure 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. Inside an hour after launch, the second stage deployed the DART spacecraft and sent it on its way.

Tonight’s launch marked the primary leg of a 10-month journey to a double-asteroid system that’ll be almost 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. As a substitute, Aerojet’s thrusters will information the spacecraft to hit the smaller asteroid, generally known as Dimorphos.

Dimorphos, which is about 525 toes broad, orbits Didymos like our moon orbits Earth. Actually, the asteroid was nicknamed “Didymoon” earlier than it was given its official name final 12 months. Dimorphos makes a whole circuit in 11.9 hours, and if all the things 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 probability that Dimorphos will break up, veer out of orbit or head in Earth’s path — which is what usually occurs in films like “Armageddon” (starring Bruce Willis) or “Don’t Look Up” (premiering subsequent month on Netflix).

“We picked it given that it’s completely protected,” Cassady stated. “Even when we miss, or we don’t accomplish the mission that we thought we might, there’s by no means going to be a hazard to Earth. And if we hit it too onerous, there nonetheless gained’t be a hazard to Earth.”

Mission controllers at Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory have programmed the probe to manage 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 — generally known as the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids, or LICIACube — will likely be deployed from the primary spacecraft 10 days earlier than the encounter and grasp again to seize pictures of the smash-up from a protected distance. In the meantime, DART will likely be sending again pictures of Dimorphos all the way in which up to date of influence.

Based mostly on NASA’s expertise with a comet-smashing mission in 2005 called Deep Impact, DART’s destruction must be an actual blast. Actually, it might take years for the mud to settle. So as to get a transparent image of the collision’s aftermath, the European House Company is planning to launch a reconnaissance probe to the double-asteroid system in 2024.

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

For that cause, 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 ready,” Cassady stated.

Members of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond crew exhibit a thruster meeting. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Picture)

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

NEXT-C, which encompasses 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 check,” Cassady stated.

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

“It’s match as a result of DART might use us,” he stated. “It’s not as disturbing of a mission as a comet pattern return mission could be. But it surely’s proof that the engine can do the issues we’ve stated it’s going to do in house, and we’ll wring all the things out. It’s nearly like our shakedown cruise, after which we’ll have it prepared for that subsequent mission.”

Try these pictures of tonight’s launch: