NASA’s new plans for deflecting an asteroid from potential harm to the Earth have gone a step further. The space agency announced Thursday that the so-called DART mission has successfully launched to crash into the Lutetia asteroid from a spacecraft not unlike NASA’s Phoenix lander that flew to Mars in 2008.
The point of the new mission, dubbed DART for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, is to alter the trajectory of the asteroid in order to deflect it far enough away from Earth that it’s not able to hit the planet. When the probe is on its way to the asteroid, it will fire two kinetic impactor projectiles to chisel holes in the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft will continue to fly to the surface, creating more impacts until the asteroid no longer reaches the critical mass of 5.5 miles in diameter. After the asteroid is deflected by the spacecraft, it will then devolve into a dark cloud, Earth-made, and be destroyed.
Officials from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., announced Thursday the instruments aboard the spacecraft, or “pods,” to be used to measure the asteroid’s trajectory, as well as its chemical composition. NASA said in April the mission was targeted to launch in October and March 2021.
More from the JPL website:
The spacecraft will descend into the Lutetia object as a full-scale imager on board has been constructed. A preliminary orbital mapping of the asteroid’s infrared properties, using the Near-Earth Object Camera, will begin two days after it reaches Lutetia. The laser-ranging instrument the spacecraft uses to measure the asteroid’s size and shape, onboard Optical Terrestrial Planet Searcher, will measure the asteroid’s temperature and reflectivity for up to 28 months, to map its structure and internal structure. Images of the surface, the vertical cross section of the asteroid, a radiometer to measure its radiation source, and a coronagraph will be assembled over about six months, after the spacecraft is traveling further away from Earth than the asteroid would reach on its path to the Earth. A catapult vehicle to deliver the impactor projectiles to the asteroid will be installed at the end of the mission. Three impactor projectiles will be launched into the asteroid, each with a drill that will drill through 20 feet of ice and dust to create a drill hole about 2 feet in diameter. An orbiter tracking device will monitor how the asteroid reacts to the impact.
Watch the JPL video above to learn more about DART, including what impactor projectiles will be launched and what impactor headfirst impactor impactor impactor impactor impactor. You can watch a NASA video on the launch here.