Safe! DC-8DART DART-1 blasts off Friday, April 13

Friday the 13th at NASA.

A day after an Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur 5 rocket rocket failed to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NASA officials at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida confirmed that the unmanned sounding rocket — called the DC-8 DART-1 mission — blasted off successfully at 1:56 p.m. EST (12:56 p.m. PST).

“Congratulations to the successful launch of the NASA DART-1 mission on the launchpad,” NASA manager Elizabeth Farnsworth said at the press conference. “The mission of this mission is to demonstrate a different approach for defending the Earth from potentially deadly space rocks.”

DART carries nearly 200 pounds of a newly developed fire extinguisher — dubbed DC-8DART — which serves to protect Earth from deadly asteroids before they collide with the planet.

The world’s largest asteroid 2011 MD, that is thought to be speeding around the sun at near the speed of the speed of light, is about 15 kilometers in diameter, and is headed for Earth, according to NASA. The eventual collision is estimated to be in 2135.

The DC-8 DART-1 mission carries a small experimental launcher to the asteroid target, NASA officials say. To do this, engineers at the Ames Research Center in California in carried out the same process that rockets use to kick off small, explosive, pyrotechnic capsules known as Geaux Rockets, they say.

The rocket is a two-stage all-electric propulsion system and is carrying a very small payload, the size of a small smoke extinguisher — about 195 pounds of a propellant called Triptosecond Derived Pressure Offload Reformer (TDOR) and a 10-pound payload of oxidizer.

“DC-8DART is really an elegant system that demonstrated fully compressed and delivered DTOR as compared to the current method of releasing DTOR in a vacuum environment,” said David McComas, director of the Astrophysics and the Space Sciences Division at the California Institute of Technology. “This compares favorably with other attempts at delivering DTOR through an additional launch vehicle launch capability,” he said.

It also fires up the rocket to a very low altitude. Unlike the Space Shuttles, the rocket works in atmospheric conditions and its design is intentionally to skim the surface of the asteroid rather than land on it.

NASA plans to recover the payload later this year. The DC-8 DART-1 is on a two-year mission — the second element of a two-part strategy to defend Earth from potentially dangerous asteroids.

The first component of the two-part plan, known as BLAST (Bouncing Asteroid Impactor Mission), will involve placing several small satellites on a mid-sized asteroid to crash into the target and potentially gather data needed to assess its position, speed and other characteristics for this mission.

Follow my live-blog of NASA’s announcement beginning at about 1:50 p.m. Friday.

Leave a Comment