A Falcon 9 rocket and its first-of-its-kind experiment roared away from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Tuesday, beginning a journey toward an intentional collision with an asteroid.
The Space Exploration Technologies booster blasted off from Space Launch Complex-4 on the South Base at 10:21 p.m.
“Liftoff of Falcon 9 and the DART mission on the way for humanity’s first-ever planetary defense test mission,” a SpaceX commenter said on the launch webcast.
Riding aboard the rocket was NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, for a $330 million planetary defense mission to ram an asteroid.
“Asteroid Dimorphos: we’re coming for you!” NASA said on Twitter as the rocket launched.
Large crowds gathered at various sites around the Lompoc Valley to watch the rocket’s loud departure, with Allan Hancock College hosting a viewing party at the Lompoc Valley Center.
Falcon’s flight also could be seen, heard and felt by residents in the Goleta area, but the marine layer hid the view for those in Santa Barbara.
The mission, sounding like the plot of a science fiction film, sparked higher-than-normal interest in the launch.
The rocket’s first-stage booster landed on a droneship called “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Pacific Ocean south of the Central Coast. SpaceX also attempted to recover the rocket’s nose cone or payload fairing.
Falcon released DART approximately 56 minutes after liftoff so the satellite can continue its journey. That late September or early October encounter will take place when the two asteroids are closest to Earth, a mere 6.8 million miles away, officials said.
“It’s an intentional crash of a spacecraft into a rock,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate “What we’re trying to learn is how to deflect a threat that would come in. Now rest assured that rock right now is not a threat and will not be a threat before or after the crash.”
DART, dubbed “a small but mighty spacecraft” by Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer for NASA, will spend more than 10 months making the trek toward its target.
The asteroid that DART intends to hit actually is a moonlet Dimorphos orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos.
“Our work right now with the DART mission is one possibility of what we might do if we found an asteroid on an impact course with the Earth,” Johnson said. “We’re testing this kinetic impactor technique where we just ram a spacecraft into the asteroid at high velocity to trim a little bit of speed off of its orbital path.”
Along with the primary spacecraft, a small CubeSat, from the Italian space agency, hitched a ride to capture images of DART’s in-space crash. Those images along with ground telescopes will allow scientists to assess the outcome of the mission.
Traveling at 15,000 mph, DART will try to hit the asteroid in a difficult mission, according to Ed Reynolds, DART project manager with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Scientists expect to change the asteroid’s orbit by at least 10 minutes and say they will analyze the effectiveness of the deflection method as a tool for protecting the planet if needed.
DART, smaller than a car, will attempt to smash into something 525 feet across, or the size of the football stadium.
“Part of the technique is we’re going to give the spacecraft a nudge. We’re going to hit it hard, but we’re hitting it with a very small vehicle,” Reynolds said.
DART features a standard satellite design and materials.
“There’s nothing special. There’s no ramming device that we put in the spacecraft. The technique is basically the mass of the spacecraft itself. You hit the asteroid with that mass, you will have a reaction,” Reynolds said.
While cruising toward its target, DART will test new technologies, including lightweight solar panels, ion thrusters and more.
DART is the second significant NASA science mission in two months from Vandenberg with the firsts being Landsat 9 in September.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.