Scientists hope to find out more about the origins of life and find a sample capable of being landed on Earth
Jupiter’s moon Europa is no stranger to its good neighbour as Nasa on Thursday blasted its main probe off the planet to crash into an asteroid.
The Deep Impact mission launched the observatory mothership Stardust to capture the comet Wild 2, then release the probe – with comet sample canister and ashes from the remains of “Neil Armstrong” – on a collision course into an asteroid called 1999 RQ36.
Because at least a few of Earth’s planetary neighbours are dangerous, including Jupiter’s moon Io, a planet within collision range, officials scrapped the original plans to make the dash for exploration on an asteroid.
Scientists hope to gather valuable data from the technology that might be available on the small asteroid once it is destroyed.
Previous Stardust missions have retrieved particles from comet Wild 2 and from other comets known as protoplanets, but Nasa scientists say what is important this time around is finding what scientists call a scientific “kill zone”, or the smallest small rocks outside the solar system that are there to be hit.
They hope that Stardust’s contact with 1999 RQ36 will capture molecular molecules and dust from within.
“That’s really what this mission is about, so we have several functional objectives which actually include returning those kinds of chemical signatures,” said Daniel Slager, Stardust science team lead, based at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Thousands of miles closer than Jupiter, 1999 RQ36 orbits about 201 million miles from the sun.
Only a few other asteroids in the solar system are on a collision course with Earth, but all are non-recoverable.
“We’ve basically set our sights on what’s the one we can go after and decide if we’re going to get inside,” Slager said.
NASA hopes to eventually deploy an outpost atop an asteroid as a landing site for a small sample of Earth to be return, but for the time being, it is setting up its landing site on December 18, 1999 RQ36.