NASA’s next space mission is taking a dummy asteroid crashing into a chunk of rock

The last time NASA flew a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid was in 1986, and the goal was to gather science data from deep space. A new mission launching in 2019 is set…

NASA’s next space mission is taking a dummy asteroid crashing into a chunk of rock

The last time NASA flew a spacecraft to crash into an asteroid was in 1986, and the goal was to gather science data from deep space.

A new mission launching in 2019 is set to repeat that experiment, but instead the crash will happen to gently deflect an asteroid that researchers think might pose a threat to Earth.

The space agency announced Thursday that its NEOWISE asteroid hunting mission will crash into an asteroid called 59 Tauri in 2021 as a way to test out the technology needed to deflect an actual threatening asteroid. The target, which orbits the sun about the size of Washington, D.C., is smaller than Curiosity, and is closer to Earth than the dwarf planet Ceres.

NASA chose 59 Tauri from hundreds of targets for the mission. As it nears the surface of the asteroid, researchers will look to see how it reacts to a collision. The encounter is a controlled one, intentionally beaning 59 Tauri about 270 miles from the rock’s surface.

“The NEOWISE mission will in essence start building a spaceship to deflect a potentially dangerous asteroid or comet,” said Mike Gernhardt, mission systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This mission should accelerate more than a decade of further development for the agency’s larger asteroid deflecting mission.”

The mission itself is NASA’s third so-called OSIRIS-REx mission. The first two, the Pioneer and Stardust missions, visited interstellar space, the sun, and comet Wild 2, respectively. Their goal was to study objects as close to the sun as objects in our solar system are, from 16 astronomical units away. By taking images and analyzing chemical composition in small molecules, the craft could estimate the extent to which organic matter had migrated from Earth. Stardust provided that data, and in 2005, Pioneer is on its way back to Earth, having covered the 13.5 AU distance between us and the sun.

The NEOWISE spacecraft is carrying different tools, like a laser altimeter, to measure the shape and movement of 57 surface properties. Previous studies have shown asteroids could have incorporated organic material in the form of organic molecules, but the properties the spacecraft will measure couldn’t be measured before the new mission began.

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