WASHINGTON — NASA launched a mission Tuesday to slam a spacecraft onto a near-Earth asteroid, attempting to learn more about the small rock and help prevent future space rocks from striking Earth.
The 16-foot-wide “interplanetary traffic cop” asteroid 1999 RQ36 buzzed Earth in late February 2019, prompting NASA scientists to request the capture mission.
In October, NASA sent its Earth-orbiting Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna near Goldstone, California, on the search for TESS, the telescope that captured the asteroid as it flew by Earth.
Scientists aboard the DSN detected TESS in the night sky, and then positioned themselves to spot it on the morning of Nov. 27.
TESS will fly around the asteroid and seek to catch a glimpse of the rock from a distance of 3,281 miles.
The vehicle will trigger the crash if it detects the asteroid to be moving too close to Earth’s gravitational field.
“By late December 2018, the spacecraft will be maneuvering to target the object in the expected ‘flyby,’ and we will use the resulting change in velocity to generate small burns of the engine to give it momentum for a collision,” said James Ulvestad, the lead mission scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
TESS will settle into the asteroid’s orbit next year, after which it will begin actively studying the asteroid from its geosynchronous orbit, about 225 miles above Earth’s surface.
The spacecraft will orbit the asteroid every 90 days, lighting up its surface in telescopes.
No impact date has been set, but NASA scientists have speculated that TESS may be forced to pass through the asteroid’s orbit before dawn in February or March 2020, or just prior to the 2020 Close Approach — when it will pass within 47,000 miles of Earth.