It is been a month since the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched on its way to the binary asteroid system of Didymos and Dimorphos. DART caught his first pictures three weeks ago, an important operational milestone as the spacecraft rushes towards -one collision with Dimorphos.
DART’s predetermined fate is to test a long-standing question about NASA: whether humanity can divert an asteroid to prevent it from hitting Earth. Neither Didymos nor the smaller one Dimorphos threatens humanity, but they pass relatively close to the Earth, making them a good test site. Better to see if we can change the path of an asteroid before we need to change the path of an asteroid.
It was famous that it was the impact of an asteroid on Earth judged the dinosaurs for extinction. NASA tracks many objects in space coming close to Earth; they are called Objects near Earth (NEOs). None is currently on one collision course, and when you see headline warning of such close calls, do not worry: “close” in cosmic terms is normal not close at all. DART will collide with Dimorphos about 6.8 million miles from Earth in September 2022, if all goes according to plan.
The picture above was taken when DART was around 2 million miles from Earth using the spacecraft’s DRACO telescope camera. It is a lot look like only grainy black, but it catches about a dozen stars, according to a Johns Hopkins University Press release. The area depicted is close to where the constellations Aries and Taurus intersect.
DRACO is only instrument in DART’s payload, although DART also carries a small satellite that it will release 10 days before arrival at the Didymos system. The camera took another picture three days after the first of Messier 38, a star cluster about 4,200 light-years from Earth.
As the DART continues its journey towards its final destination, DRACO will take pictures with it the way to help the DART team to better understand any optical imperfections and calibrate brightness. That’s all useful information ahead that last set of shots, which will be taken in about nine months.
Whether the impact of DART actually changes Dimorphos’s orbital orbit, the collision would demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft to autonomously navigate to and kinetically affect a target asteroid. Hopefully we will not need a real-deal mission like this soon.
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