Image copyright NASA Image caption The space agency intends to collect asteroid samples for research purposes
A spacecraft has been sent into space to crash into an asteroid as part of NASA’s asteroid-mapping mission.
The space agency hopes that collisions with the rock debris will reveal a lot about how rocky planets formed.
The tiny spacecraft called ROART (Near-Earth Asteroid Redirection Test) was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
After it passes near an asteroid in 2022, it will fall to the ground in 2023, NASA said.
The mission aims to confirm the agency’s technology to halt an asteroid impact and then study the sample it generates to see if future missions to gather bigger samples can help protect Earth from damage.
“We’re in a new era of spacecraft design and construction, and the ROART mission strikes a balance between demonstrating new capabilities and enabling future asteroid exploration,” said Mark Adler, programme executive for asteroid deflections at NASA.
Image copyright NASA Image caption It was launched into space at 10:05pm UK time (21:05 UTC) on Thursday
NASA says it has collected data to estimate the impact probability of an impact with the asteroid.
The risk of a collision between the asteroid known as 5200 Borwin and Earth is 1 in 250 million, NASA said.
“We’ve been searching for a potential impactor for more than 50 years and have learned that an asteroid about 1.3km in diameter appears to be on a collision course with Earth by 2200,” said Pete Worden, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, which led the project.
“This is as good as it gets. To avoid the worst-case scenario, we need to change the velocity of the impacting asteroid,” he added.
Image copyright NASA Image caption It will join an already-begun project that is to study the rock debris in situ
The target is believed to be a near-Earth asteroid, 5200 Borwin. The spacecraft is slightly smaller than a loaf of bread and will fly through space at 17,500 km/h (11,000 miles/hour) and land in the Red Desert of Oman.
ROART will not burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere or impact the Earth’s surface. Instead, it will crash directly into the asteroid, probably as part of a controlled procedure, scientists say.
By collecting impact energy, the spacecraft will change the object’s velocity by around 0.6km per second (0.25km per second). This will then be analysed to see how the object will affect itself.
The impact could generate as much as 1kg of aluminium per square metre, which could be used as a mining catalyst for future solar-power projects.
ROART is a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the US space agency.
It joins a project called TAG (to study the composition of the space rock), which is currently being developed by Nasa and its agency partners.
Image copyright KOREAN MINERALS, KAIWI & NEOSFALL ESA Image caption The asteroid has been selected for further study by a NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx
Watch the relevant NASA video to see how the mission works.
This project, called OSIRIS-REx, aims to collect a sample of the asteroid and send it back to Earth.
It’s expected to arrive at the asteroid in 2025 and return the sample the following year.
ROART’s deployment is being broadcast live on NASA’s TV channel.
Scientists hope that by 2025 they will have collected at least one small asteroid that they can send to the moon for more detailed study.