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The Spacecraft Sent to Crash Into an Asteroid Just Returned Its Very First Images

It's a Christmas gift from NASA's DART.

The Spacecraft Sent to Crash Into an Asteroid Just Returned Its Very First Images
Artist's rendering of DART NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Last month, NASA sent the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) into space whose goal is to send a spacecraft traveling at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) into an asteroid, called Dimorphos, next year sometime between September 26 and October 1.

The DART mission's objective is to determine the feasibility of a method designed to alter an asteroid's trajectory. Now, just two weeks after its launch, DART has sent back its very first images.

To take these pictures the spacecraft used its DRACO telescopic camera.

DRACO (short for Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) is a high-resolution camera engineered to capture images of the asteroid Didymos and its moonlet asteroid Dimorphos, as well as support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system to direct DART to its final kinetic impact.

The Spacecraft Sent to Crash Into an Asteroid Just Returned Its Very First Images
Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

DRACO's images were taken about 2 million miles (11 light seconds) from Earth and showcase about a dozen stars near where the constellations Perseus, Aries, and Taurus intersect. 

But the images are not just aesthetically pleasing. The DART navigation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used the stars in the image to extrapolate how DRACO was oriented. Once that was established, the DART team could accurately move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest whose images could be used to identify optical imperfections as well as calibrate how bright an object truly is.

The Spacecraft Sent to Crash Into an Asteroid Just Returned Its Very First Images
Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA also explained how before the images were sent back, "scientists and engineers at the mission operations center at the 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 as small as 5 millionths of a meter, meaning something could have easily gone wrong.

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Luckily nothing did and the researchers were able to enjoy a lovely Christmas gift: a series of images from DART.

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