NASA's DART spacecraft captures images of its target asteroid 20 million miles away

The DART spacecraft is days away from slamming into an asteroid to perform the very first planetary defense test in space.
Chris Young
The image of Didymos and Dimorphos taken from the DART spacecraft.
The image of Didymos and Dimorphos taken from the DART spacecraft.

Source: NASA JPL / DART Navigation Team 

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft is on its way to test a potentially lifesaving planetary defense technology by crashing into an asteroid.

The spacecraft has now captured the first images of its target double-asteroid system, which includes the asteroid it will crash into, called Dimorphos, the asteroid moonlet of Didymos.

Once it has slammed into Dimorphos, NASA will make observations of the asteroid from Earth to ascertain whether the spacecraft was able to alter the asteroid's trajectory significantly. If it does, that means the method can be used to avert potentially hazardous asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

NASA's DART spacecraft approaches its target

The new images released by NASA show light reflecting off Didymos and its orbiting moonlet Dimorphos. They are a composite of 243 images taken by the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) on July 27, 2022.

The DART spacecraft took images of the asteroids from approximately 20 million miles (32.186 million km) away, and navigation camera experts were uncertain whether DRACO could spot the space rocks from that distance.

“This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imaging techniques,” said Elena Adams, the DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The quality of the image is similar to what we could obtain from ground-based telescopes, but it is important to show that DRACO is working properly and can see its target to make any adjustments needed before we begin using the images to guide the spacecraft into the asteroid autonomously.”

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Ultimately, the DRACO system will be used to help the DART spacecraft navigate and slam into its target autonomously once it gets closer. NASA's DART team explained that the new images would help them to fine-tune the software responsible for those final hours before impact.

When will the DART spacecraft slam into its target?

The DART spacecraft will smash into Dimorphos on September 26. It will do so to conduct the very first test of the kinetic impact technique, which utilizes a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid for planetary defense. It will also be the very first planetary defense test conducted in space. Dimorphos doesn't pose a threat to Earth, and it will only be used as a test subject, standing in for a hypothetical hazardous space rock zipping towards Earth.

NASA will live stream the impact event later this month. The space agency announced live coverage of the DART impact would begin at 6 p.m. EDT on September 26. It will air on NASA TV, live streamed 24 hours a day on NASA's YouTube channel. We will also be sure to provide live updates here at IE before and after the impact, which is set to take place at 7:14 p.m. EDT.

It's been an exciting few months for space news, with the release of the first image of our galaxy's black hole, Sagittarius A*, in May, the first James Webb telescope images in July, and the upcoming launches of NASA's Artemis I mission and SpaceX's Starship. The culmination of the DART mission is another impressive milestone to add to the list. After the event, it won't take long for experts at NASA to know whether humanity has an asteroid diversion technology at its disposal.

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