The spacecraft that is about to smash into an asteroid has just sent back its first images

It is a month ago that the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission was launched on its way to the binary asteroid system Didymos and Dimorphos. DART took its first pictures three weeks ago, an important operational milestone as the spacecraft rushes towards a collision with Dimorphos.

DART’s predetermined fate is to test a long-standing question from NASA: whether humanity can divert an asteroid to prevent it from hitting Earth. Neither Didymos nor the smaller Dimorphos threaten humanity, but they pass relatively close to 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 that condemned the dinosaurs to extinction. NASA tracks many objects in space that come close to Earth; they are called Near Earth Objects (NEOs). No one is currently on a collision course, and when you see headlines warning of such close calls, do not worry: “close” in cosmic terms is usually 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 image above was taken when DART was about 2 million miles from Earth, using the spacecraft’s DRACO telescope camera. Many look like only a grainy blackness, but it catches about a dozen stars, according to a press release from Johns Hopkins University. The area depicted is close to where the constellations Aries and Taurus intersect.

DRACO is the only instrument in DART’s payload, although DART also carries a small satellite, which it will release 10 days before its arrival in 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 toward its final destination, DRACO will take pictures along the way to help the DART team better understand any optical imperfections and calibrate the brightness. This is all useful information prior to the final set of photos, which will be taken in about nine months.

Whether or not DART’s impact actually changes Dimorphos’ orbital trajectory, 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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