‘Smashing’ asteroid encounter expected to cast a large spotlight on China

The US space agency will fire its Tiangong-1 space lab into a rock on Friday. Satellite sensors will be watching closely to see whether it survives

Expect a high-tech, high-stakes theatre-filling rendezvous when Nasa drops its “neighbourly” spacecraft into a near-Earth asteroid on Friday.

Nasa says a Chinese space probe will collide with a small celestial body travelling at near-Earth speed (24,000mph), leading to a dramatic display of what happens when a space rock slams into a small capsule. The event, which Nasa forecasters predict as “smashing”, will be followed by images sent back to earth.

Spacecraft from around the world are broadcasting instructions to eight cameras on Tianhe-1, a probe packed with solar panels that is bobbing in orbit around the planet. This year’s collision is the second in about 30 years, with NASA releasing footage from the first, 18.5 years ago, to compare. The colourful footage from Tiangong-1 will focus on “the latest images” showing “a much larger fireball than we would expect from a truck”, Nasa says.

Chinese space scientists look at the probe’s proximity to the asteroid Atenca. Photograph: China Academy of Space Technology

China’s probe will blast a small fuel-filled capsule into the asteroid, orbiting it from a distance of about 300,000 miles. The capsule and about 14lb of water and tools will release several tiny retroreflectors that Nasa says “will show up better in space than on Earth”. Nasa experts, who will be watching the event from an observatory in California, are hoping to catch the encounter in black and white.

The presence of Nasa’s cameras on the asteroid, and the ground measurements collected by astronomers, will provide precious background information about asteroid Dumont, according to scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Dumont orbits around Earth in the same direction as the sun. Experts think it’s about half the size of a baseball, or 5 metres in diameter, and is travelling at nearly 35,000mph. Nasa says the impact of the collision will cause pressure to release about five times the rock’s original mass.

This photo shows the ‘neighbourly’ spacecraft travelling through space. Photograph: JAXA

China’s probe is scheduled to return to Earth on 17 November. The spacecraft returned to Earth in 2013 after a seven-month mission. The large, seven-metre antenna at Woomera in Australia will be used to give commands to Tianhe-1 after it comes to rest 1.5m miles from Earth. The news was read out by Alan Duffy, who manages the Woomera telescope, on Tuesday.

Dumont will be just one asteroid outside the asteroid belt that Tianhe-1 will have to reckon with, however. The spacecraft will be plunged into the outermost portion of the solar system, where asteroids are relatively rare. An estimated half of all asteroids have a name, or one that refers to Earth. The nickname struck Duffy as humorous. “Sometimes a name is hilarious, sometimes it’s just a joke,” he said.

Tiangong-1 has a Chinese-made robotic arm on board that can manipulate the probe. These devices have also been used to move and steer astronauts on board the Shenzhou spacecraft.

Dawson, who spent six days on board the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, said the robotic arm was a helpful method of operating the spacecraft.

Leave a Comment