Nasa launches mission to blast off spacecraft to crash into asteroid

Several attempts to fly past asteroid Bennu had been postponed until the satellite arrived at the frozen space rock

A NASA spacecraft has blasted off on a mission to crash into an asteroid and study its potentially devastating potential for crashing into Earth.

Bennu is 140 miles (225km) wide and can potentially hit Earth with a magnitude 8 meteor impact that would wipe out continents.

The gravity of the Bennu asteroid, or Odoqui Bennu if you wish, is nearly the same as that of Earth, so astronauts on a mission there could capture it, fire rockets at it and drag it back on to a safer trajectory.

Three previous attempts to land an asteroid-sample explorer on the asteroid failed. The mission went up a notch on Friday, when the Dawn spacecraft was launched to pursue Bennu.

Flight operations director Leonid Timmerman of Lockheed Martin, the company that built Dawn, said: “Asteroids are the building blocks of the planets, the right bricks to help our understanding of how our solar system was formed.”

The 4,100lb (2,300kg) spacecraft will blast off to the cosmic body at a speed of more than 6,400mph (10,000kmh).

Oddly, this would be the slowest planetary test NASA has ever conducted.

The next most-impressive space test is the Apollo astronauts’ 13 ascent through the lunar atmosphere. Then the United States will return to another celestial test when it launches a spacecraft into a sun-synchronous orbit around Mars in 2025. It is considered NASA’s greatest space mission to date.

Dawn will spend four years studying the asteroid, looking for clues about its composition and evolution. That’s when its 4.6-tonne robot arm will be used to release a sample return capsule as Bennu plummets toward Earth in April 2027. Scientists want the remains of Bennu to be transported back to Earth for study. The spacecraft had to expend 25% more fuel to make the trip.

Deputy project scientist Carol Raymond, with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “For an asteroid of this size, it’s a real engineering challenge to get it there in the first place.”

In 1997 the US space agency – then called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – asked astronomers to find potentially hazardous asteroids and develop a way to deflect them if they approached Earth. Bennu was found in 1999. Scientists estimate that Bennu is 2bn years old, which would make it one of the oldest asteroids in the solar system. It orbits the sun at a point closer to Earth than any other asteroid.

The spacecraft will fly past the Bennu asteroid on 13 August and will head back to Earth. Part of the 3m-long sample return capsule will land on the floor of the Pacific Ocean near Mexico in 2029.

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