Last month, NASA sent the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) into space, the purpose of which is to send a spacecraft traveling at a speed of 24,000 kph into asteroid, called Dimorphos, the next-year between September 26 & October 1.
The objective of the DART mission is to determine the feasibility of a method designed to modify the trajectory of an asteroid. Now, just 2 weeks after its launch, DART sent its very first images.
To take these photos, the spacecraft used its DRACO telescopic camera.
DRACO (short for Didymos Reconnaissance & Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) is a high-resolution camera designed to capture images of the asteroid Didymos & its lunar asteroid Dimorphos, as well as to support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system to direct DART towards its final kinetic impact.
The DRACO images were taken about 2 million miles (11 light sec) from Earth & show a dozen stars near where constellations of Perseus, Aries, & Taurus intersect.
But images are not only aesthetically pleasing. The DART navigation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used the stars in image to extrapolate how DRACO was oriented. Once established, the DART team could accurately move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest whose images can be used to identify optical imperfections & calibrate how bright object’s really is.
NASA also explained how, before the images were sent back, “scientists & engineers at the mission operations center at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, Held their breath in anticipation.” This is because the spacecraft’s telescopic instrument is very sensitive to movements of only 5 millionths of a meter, which means that something could easily have gone wrong.
Fortunately, nothing happened & researchers were able to enjoy Christmas gift: a series of DART images.