What happens when NASA launches an asteroid-watching spacecraft in our own backyard?

Science is quirky, but usually not out of left field.

Like everyday science, however, it takes a step back to check in with our preconceived notions of what’s out there, what’s possible, and whether or not the previous frontier really was just as weird.

This week, NASA’s Environsat flight to an asteroid on a mission to provide information to better protect the Earth from space rocks with the potential to impact (that’s right) has taken a much smaller step back, amid a host of reverberations and discoveries.

First off, of course, it’s safe to say NASA did not know for sure exactly what to expect. This particular asteroid, named 2018 BJ, is about 2 million years old, suggesting that it’s quite old by cosmic standards. Second, 2018 BJ wasn’t the right type of asteroid to be bombarded by a space rock, because it orbits between 100-300 times closer to the sun than the sun. This is a bad thing because a meteoroid headed toward Earth would be observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, but the asteroid itself would be hiding.

“The objects that are actually making a dent on Earth would be coming close by,” explained Don Yeomans, of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office. “NASA’s estimating that 2018 BJ is going to come about 4.4 million miles [7.3 million kilometers] past Earth, and that’s enough to make a crater somewhere near the equator on our surface.”

All of this information came together during the spacecraft’s launch.

In terms of what comes next, NASA is certainly amped. 2019 will be a busy year for Environsat, since it will be equipped with six cameras to photograph the asteroid and attempt to get an even closer-up look at what makes it tick. In 2020, a series of flybys will take the data Environsat gathers and add it to a pieced-together picture astronomers hope will help them create a map of the planetary core — along with its orbit and other “near-Earth properties.”

Here’s an awesome interactive web tool that explains the mission further:

“One of the big things we’re really excited about that Environsat is going to do is take a look at the entirety of the surface,” said Geoff Yoder, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We know that the structure of an asteroid is changing from the time it formed, but a lot of what we know about the terrain on that asteroid is based on images obtained from previously orbiting satellites.”

The launch still holds risks, but the spacecraft is already beyond the where the risk is minimal.

Already aware of the public’s fascination with stars, scientific endeavors, and outer space, NASA tasked Environsat with something entirely new: It launched into Earth’s field of view in order to gather data about an asteroid as it passed by the planet.

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