NASA’s Dual Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft has captured its first look at the asteroid it’s due to hit on September 26.
Asteroid Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth, but NASA wants to find out if it can change the trajectory of an asteroid by crashing a spacecraft into it so that it can protect our planet from dangerous space rocks in the future.
The image (below) — captured by DART’s Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera (DRACO) in July and released by NASA this week — shows Didymos, the twin asteroid system that includes the spacecraft’s target, Dimorphos (in the left circle), about 20 million miles from DART.
The image is actually made up of 243 separate shots and shows the light from the asteroid Didymos and its orbit of the moon Dimorphos.
NASA said its team wasn’t sure if DRACO would still be able to spot the asteroid, but after stitching together the multiple images, it was able to refine the final picture and identify Didymos.
DRACO is a key part of DART—in fact, it’s the only instrument the spacecraft carries—because its data will be used to guide the spacecraft toward the asteroid, especially in the final four hours before impact, when DART will have to navigate on its own.
“This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imaging techniques,” Elena Adams, a DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Applied Physics. said in edition. “The image quality is similar to what we could get from ground-based telescopes, but it’s important to show that DRACO is working properly and can see its target to make the necessary corrections before we start using the images to guide the spacecraft into the asteroid autonomously.
After performing a series of trajectory correction maneuvers over the next three weeks, the team is confident that 24 hours before impact with the asteroid, it will know the point of impact to within 1.2 miles (2 kilometers).
Scientists have estimated that Earth is at greatest risk from asteroids larger than 460 feet (140 meters). There are many asteroids yet to be discovered by astronomers, so a successful test in just a few weeks could prove vital to the safety of our planet.