With its unique “eye”, NASA’s DART returns the first images from space


On December 10, DART’s DRACO camera captured and returned this image of the stars of Messier 38, or the starfish cluster, which is some 4,200 light years away. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

Just two weeks after launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft opened its ‘eye’ and returned its first images of space, a major operational milestone for the spacecraft and the DART team.

After the violent vibrations of the launch and the extreme temperature change to minus 80 degrees C in space, scientists and engineers at the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, held their breath by anticipation. Since the components of the spacecraft’s telescoping instrument are sensitive to movements as small as 5 millionths of a meter, even a small displacement of something in the instrument could be very serious.

On Tuesday, December 7, the spacecraft opened the circular door covering the opening of its DRACO telescopic camera and, to everyone’s joy, returned the first image of its surrounding environment. Taken about 2 million miles (11 light seconds) from Earth – very close, astronomically speaking – the image shows a dozen stars, crystal clear and crisp against the black background of space, near the intersection of the constellations Perseus, Aries and Taurus.

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 these measurements in hand, the DART team were able to accurately move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest, such as the Messier 38 (M38), also known as the Starfish Cluster, which DART captured in another image on December 10. Located in the constellation Auriga, the star cluster is some 4,200 light years from Earth. Intentionally capturing images with many stars like M38 helps the team characterize optical imperfections in images and calibrate an object’s absolute brightness, all of which are important details for accurate measurements when DRACO begins to image the spacecraft’s destination. , the Didymos binary asteroid system.

DRACO (short for Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) is a high-resolution camera inspired by the imager from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that returned the first close-up images of the Pluto system and a belt object. Kuiper, Arrokoth. As DART’s sole instrument, DRACO will capture images of the asteroid Didymos and its lunar asteroid Dimorphos, and support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system to direct DART towards its final kinetic impact.

DART was developed and is managed by Johns Hopkins APL for the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office. DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission, intentionally performing a kinetic impact on Dimorphos to slightly alter its movement in space. While neither of the two asteroids pose a threat to Earth, the DART mission will demonstrate that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to kinetic impact on a relatively small target asteroid, and that it is a viable technique to deflect a truly dangerous asteroid, should one ever be discovered. . DART will reach its goal on September 26, 2022.


Launch of dual asteroid redirection test could be a key advance in planetary defense


More information:
For more information on the DART mission, see www.nasa.gov/dartmission

Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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