On December 10, DART’s DRACO camera captured and returned this image of the Messier 38 star, which is 4,200 light-years away. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

Just two weeks after launching from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft opened its “eye” and returned its first images from space, a major operational milestone for the spacecraft and the DART team.

After the violent vibrations of the boat and the change in temperature in space to minus 80 degrees C, scientists and engineers at the Johns Hopkins Laboratory Center for Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, breathed a sigh of relief. Since the components of the spacecraft’s telescopic instrument are sensitive to movements as small as 5 million meters, even a small displacement of something in the instrument could be very serious.

On Tuesday, December 7, the spacecraft opened a circular door that covered the opening of its DRACO telescopic camera and, to everyone’s delight, returned the first image of its surroundings. At about 2 million miles (11 light-seconds) from Earth — very close, astronomically speaking — the image shows a dozen stars, clear and sharp crystals against the black background of space near the intersection of the constellations Perseus, Aries, and Taurus.

The DART navigation team at NASA’s California Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the stars in the picture to determine exactly how DRACO was oriented, giving the first measurements of how the camera aimed at the spacecraft. With these measurements in hand, the DART team was able to accurately move the spacecraft to direct DRACO objects of interest, such as the Messier 38 (M38), also known as a set of starfish, which DART captured on December 10 in another image. The constellation Auriga, a star cluster, is 4,200 light-years from Earth. Deliberately capturing images with many stars like M38 helps the group to characterize the optical defects of the images, as well as calibrate how bright an object is; all the important details for accurate measurements begin when it depicts the destination of the DRACO spacecraft, the binary system of the asteroid Didymos.

The DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation) is a high-resolution camera inspired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that translated close-up images of the Pluto system and an object in the Arrokoth Kuiper Belt. As the only tool in DART, DRACO will capture images of the asteroid Didymos and the asteroid Dimorphos of its moon, and will support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system to guide DART to its ultimate kinetic impact.

DART is developed and managed by the Johns Hopkins APL for NASA’s Office of Planetary Defense Coordination. DART is the world’s first planetary defense mission, and it deliberately executes Dimorphos ’kinetic influence to change its movement in space slightly. Although asteroids pose no threat to Earth, the DART mission will demonstrate that a spacecraft navigates autonomously on a relatively small asteroid with a kinetic impact, and that it is a viable technique to deflect a truly dangerous asteroid if ever found. . DART will reach its goal on September 26, 2022.

Launching a double asteroid redirection test could be a key step in defending the planet

More information:

For more information about the DART mission, see www.nasa.gov/dartmission

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

With its one “eye”, NASA’s DART returns the first images from space (2021, December 29)
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