NASA to launch first spacecraft to take on asteroid

By Chris Cramer, O. Perry Walker , Adam Berry and Jennifer Yang

(CNN) — NASA is putting its first full-fledged prototype in space to test a new planetary defense system designed to attack near-Earth asteroids and comets that could pose a danger to the planet, according to a NASA press release.

Known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARMM, the mission is set to blast off in 2023, NASA said. At first, the craft will be used to redirect an asteroid toward Earth. If that doesn’t work, the craft will remain there as a “babysitter,” keeping the asteroid and its fragments from hitting Earth, the agency said.

The spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, NASA said, but the actual mission will take place off the coast of Hawaii.

After the launch, ARMM will slide in to a low-Earth orbit, NASA said.

Once there, the craft will make a gradual orbit around the sun, doing a few dozen orbits over two years. Over the course of that time, it will study the asteroid, “removing small bits from the mass to ensure that it remains a small body rather than a threatening asteroid,” NASA said.

NASA has calculated that if an asteroid threatens Earth, the spaceship should remove at least one-third of the asteroid so it can remain smaller, according to a news release. This is the initial phase of the mission.

The craft will encounter the Earth-facing end of the asteroid at some point and capture a chunk of it into its robotic arm. The craft will release that chunk and begin moving it away from the asteroid’s gravity toward Earth. Then the craft will grab the rock around its neck and reorient it toward Earth.

The object will then move to a different point in the solar system and repeat the process. The NASA team will keep an eye on the craft to make sure it stays put. The craft will stay in Earth’s “safe” distance from the asteroid.

The craft will also measure how the gravity of the moon affects the space object, NASA said. The data will help NASA understand how, exactly, a collection of Earth’s moon would help deflect a small asteroid, according to the news release.

The craft also has two “deep space observatories” that will conduct a close look at the asteroid. The New Horizons spacecraft will fly by in December 2015 to take high-resolution images and conduct observations. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will arrive at the asteroid in August 2023 and “enter the target’s orbit in the mid-2020s and begin sampling material from its surface and interior,” NASA said.

Asteroid redirect is a NASA-led program and is a joint effort with the European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The European Space Agency selected the asteroid in 2007.

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