The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was launched into space this month by NASA with the goal of sending a spacecraft flying at 15,000 mph (24,000 kph) into an asteroid named Dimorphos between September 26 and October 1 next year.
The DART mission’s goal is to test the viability of a mechanism for altering an asteroid’s trajectory. DART has sent back its first photos just two weeks after its launch, indicating that its camera is working well and has withstood the rigours of launch.
“On Tuesday, December 7, the spacecraft popped open the circular door covering the aperture of its DRACO telescopic camera and, to everyone’s glee, streamed back the first image of its surrounding environment,” NASA wrote.
“Taken about 2 million miles (11 light seconds) from Earth — very close, astronomically speaking — the image shows about a dozen stars, crystal-clear and sharp against the black backdrop of space, near where the constellations Perseus, Aries, and Taurus intersect.”
The photographs were taken with the DRACO camera (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation), a high-resolution camera that is the DART craft’s sole instrument. It is mainly inspired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft imager. DRACO is predominantly used for navigation and targeting. It will measure the size and shape of the Didymos asteroid and help determine how and where the DART probe should impact it.
DRACO can and will be used to send photos back to Earth, even though that isn’t its primary goal. These two newly released images show that the camera is functioning normally and should send back more pictures as the mission progresses. In addition, DRACO will record the DART vehicle falling into the asteroid, sending back images up until the final encounter, allowing scientists to learn more about the asteroid’s surface.
DART is currently going through the solar system and is scheduled to impact asteroid Didymos on September 26, 2022.