NASA's asteroid-slamming spacecraft gets a first glimpse at its target

The asteroid Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos are shown in a composite image taken by DART's DRACO instrument on July 27, 2022. (Image credit: NASA JPL DART Navigation Team)

That is not the moon. That's called a moonlet. NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission has just returned the first photograph of its target, the moonlet Dimorphos, as well as the asteroid Didymos in circles. DART is a planetary defense test mission that will impact the moonlet in order to change its orbit around Didymos. If successful, this spacecraft concept might be scaled up to deflect an Earth-bound asteroid. (While Didymos and Dimorphos pose no threat to Earth, they serve as a testing ground for kinetic impact technologies.)

The image, which is a composite of 243 distinct photographs, was obtained on July 27 by DART's only instrument, the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO), and released on Wednesday (Sept. 7). It depicts both Dimorphos and Didymos as a single point of light since the spacecraft was still 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) distant at the time, making them indistinguishable.

This first batch of photographs is being used as a test to confirm our imaging capabilities, according to Elena Adams of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, which is overseeing the expedition. The image quality is comparable to what we might collect from ground-based telescopes, but it is critical to demonstrate that DRACO is functioning correctly and can see its target before we begin utilizing the photos to direct the spacecraft into the asteroid autonomously.

DART will eventually employ DRACO to travel to its impact location entirely independently of its Earth-based handlers. But for the time being, humans are in command. The crew will utilize photos collected every five hours for the next three weeks to perform a sequence of three trajectory correction procedures that will place DART on a precise course to Didymos. DART will then assume charge within 24 hours of impact to fine-tune its final approach.

According to Julie Bellerose, the DART navigation lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, "Seeing the DRACO images of Didymos for the first time allows us to iron out the best DRACO settings and fine-tune the software." In September, we'll fine-tune DART's target by gaining a more specific estimate of Didymos' position.

DRACO has checked in on Didymos three more times since capturing these images. DART will arrive at Dimorphos around 7:14 p.m. on September 26. EDT (2314 GMT), you can watch NASA TV coverage of the event here on or directly on the agency's website.

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