NASA’s DART spacecraft opens its ‘eye’ and sends back the first images from space


Illustration of the DART spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Just two weeks after launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, ">NasaThe DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft has 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 launch and the extreme temperature change of minus 80 degrees Celsius in space, scientists and engineers at the Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, held their breath in anticipation. . Since components of the spacecraft’s telescopic instrument are sensitive to movements as small as 5 millionths of a meter, even a small displacement of something in the instrument could be very serious.

NASA DART Telescopic Imager

On December 7, after opening the circular door of its telescopic imager, NASA’s DART captured this image of a dozen stars near the intersection of the constellations Perseus, Aries and Taurus. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

On Tuesday, December 7, the spacecraft opened the circular door covering the aperture of its DRACO telescopic camera and, to everyone’s delight, beamed back the first image of its surrounding environment. Taken about 2 million miles (11 light seconds) from Earth – very close, astronomically speaking – the image shows a dozen stars, crystalline and sharp against the black background of space, near the intersection constellations Perseus, Aries and Taurus.

NASA DART DRACO Camera

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

The DART navigation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used the stars in the image to determine precisely how DRACO was oriented, providing the first measurements of how the camera is pointed relative to the spacecraft. With these measurements in hand, the DART team was able to precisely move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest, such as Messier 38 (M38), also known as the Starfish Cluster, which DART captured in another image on December 10. Located in the constellation Auriga, the group of stars is about 4,200 light-years from Earth. Intentionally capturing images with many stars like M38 helps the team characterize optical imperfections in images as well as calibrate an object’s absolute brightness – all important details for accurate measurements when DRACO begins imaging. the spacecraft’s destination, the binary asteroid system Didymos.

DRACO (short for Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) is a high-resolution camera modeled after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft imager that returned the first close-up images of the Pluto system and a Kuiper belt object, Arrokoth. As the sole instrument of DART, DRACO will capture images of the asteroid Didymos and its lunar asteroid Dimorphos, as well as spacecraft support autonomous guidance system to direct DART to its final kinetic impact.

DART was developed and is maintained by Johns Hopkins APL for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission, intentionally performing a kinetic impact on Dimorphos to slightly alter its motion in space. Although none of the asteroids pose a threat to Earth, the DART mission will demonstrate that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a kinetic impact on a relatively small target asteroid, and this is a technique viable to deflect a truly dangerous asteroid, should one ever be discovered. . DART will reach its goal on September 26, 2022.

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