With more than 500 million miles in the books and 157 million miles remaining until it reaches Earth, NASA’s DEEP IN SPACE is, finally, on the brink of its first orbital test mission.
The craft, codenamed DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test Vehicle), launched into space on Wednesday afternoon, May 16, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It is scheduled to reach an asteroid within four days.
This will be the first time an American rocket has orbited a NEO in orbit.
On the way to its touchdown at the far side of a boulder-littered asteroid, the DART craft will be slightly tilted in orbit. If there’s enough maneuvering and telemetry data, scientists could determine how to correct it to see if it can steer the projectile toward a much less cumbersome target, C/2012 RC, which lies 49 million miles from Earth.
“You find out all the time how much of an impactor you are,” Joe Veverka, DEEP IN SPACE project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If we could tilt it right at the stars, then we probably could miss.”
The launch was originally planned for January 2016, but was delayed because of a series of issues. In a news conference before the launch, DART project manager Mark Adler said “our space analogues aren’t good enough for this mission.”
Within two weeks of its entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the craft will fire its rocket thrusters to briefly ascend. It will then land more than 1,100 feet above Earth’s surface, where it will be catapulted vertically into an upright position, without the benefit of a lift assist.
The projectile will enter the boulder-strewn space rock, encounter friction and heat and then detach from the mission to recover within days.
The efforts may be dwarfed by the threat. While a little more than half a percent of the total known asteroids that are 2 kilometers or larger, have been found.
NASA has said that, as of 2012, more than 500,000 of the 2.7 million known near-Earth objects are larger than 1 kilometer.
The DART spacecraft has a one-third chance of being there on September 30, when C/2012 RC will hit the Earth, to gauge its roughness and its habitability.
In January, Voyager 1 captured images of how C/2012 RC looks within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Voyager 1 snapped the photos of the small rocky asteroid C/2012 RC just hours after successfully executing its first planet-corroborating global measurement of the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 as seen from the farthest exploration spacecraft in space.
DART’s main purposes are as a laboratory, to allow for improved measurements of how heavy objects in the solar system withstand impact. In recent years, small sensors attached to the spacecraft will also provide evidence on how best to deflate an asteroid before it leaves the system.
However, the spacecraft doesn’t see itself as a sole hero in its mission.
NASA hopes a successful mission will generate excitement over space exploration and public recognition that space is cool and valuable.
The May 16, 2020 launch of DEEP IN SPACE marks the culmination of more than a decade of research at Goddard and the universities involved in the project, led by Seattle-based Washington State University and Washington University.