NASA Probe Heads To Asteroid Flyby
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A NASA spacecraft headed toward a close encounter with an asteroid Wednesday 188 million miles from Earth.
Deep Space 1, a barrel-shaped, 8-foot probe that was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., last October, was scheduled to make a flyby that would bring it to within 15 miles of Asteroid Braille, a rocky, mile-wide object orbiting between Earth and Mars.
The spacecraft was expected to make the close approach at 9:46 p.m. PDT at a relative speed of 35,000 mph.
The maneuver was considered risky. This is the closest a probe has been ordered to come to a solar system object without landing, said Marc Rayman, the mission’s deputy manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Deep Space 1, which uses technology that enables it to decide its own course, could crash into the asteroid or miss it altogether.
Researchers hope its instruments will return information on the asteroid’s mass, density and makeup and whether it’s a single rock or pile of rocks. Any scientific findings were not expected before Thursday.
The flyby is considered a bonus by scientists, since Deep Space 1′s primary mission was testing a dozen new technologies for use aboard future spacecraft.
``No science mission could rely on using them until they’ve been shown to work in space,″ Rayman said. ``Deep Space 1 took the risk so other missions wouldn’t have to.″
Among the futuristic technologies tested was an ion propulsion engine that moved the spacecraft by sending out a stream of high-speed particles called ions.
Deep Space 1 also was given a mind of its own so that it could find its way through space without much help from ground controllers.