NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft has returned its first photos, proving its onboard navigation camera survived launch. Known as DRACO, which is short for Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation, the lone camera carried by DART will be critical in guiding the spacecraft toward its ultimate asteroid collision later this year.
BACKGROUND: DART ON A PLANET SAVING TEST DRIVE
In science fiction, Earthlings are periodically faced with possible extinction from an asteroid barreling towards their fragile planet. In real life, the threat of such a strike is not imaginary, as most experts believe it is only a matter of time before an asteroid large enough to do serious damage to life on Earth heads our way.
In 2021, NASA responded to this threat by launching the DART mission, which is currently on target to smash into the asteroid Didymos sometime around September of 2022. Although that asteroid is not a threat to Earth, the mission hopes to prove the viability of changing an asteroid’s trajectory in preparation for such a threat in the future.
Of course, for the mission to actually work, the spacecraft needs to have a fully functional camera to guide it to Didymos. According to the space agency, these images prove the camera works.
ANALYSIS: DRACO OPENS ITS LONE EYE AND SENDS BACK FIRST IMAGES
“On Tuesday, Dec. 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,” announced a press release by NASA’s Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory partners. “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.”
Mission planners had been concerned that DRACO may not survive the hard vibrations and extreme temperatures associated with launching the craft into space, so the successful opening and testing of the single navigation camera was a huge relief.
According to the press release, “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 those measurements in hand, the DART team could accurately move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest, such as Messier 38 (M38), also known as the Starfish Cluster, that DART captured in another image on Dec. 10.”
Although the picture itself is nothing spectacular, the press release notes that “intentionally capturing images with many stars like M38 helps the team characterize optical imperfections in the images as well as calibrate how absolutely bright an object is — all important details for accurate measurements when DRACO starts imaging the spacecraft’s destination, the binary asteroid system Didymos.”
OUTLOOK: DART NOW READY TO SMASH THAT ASTEROID IN SEPTEMBER
DART is not expected to reach its target until September 26th of this year but making sure the camera is working and able to zero in on its eventual target was critical to the mission’s final success.
“DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission, intentionally executing a kinetic impact into Dimorphos to slightly change its motion in space,” the press release concludes. “While neither asteroid poses 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 that this is a viable technique to deflect a genuinely dangerous asteroid, if one is ever discovered.”