A month has passed since the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission was launched in the direction of the binary asteroid Didymos / Dimorphos. DART managed to capture its first images three weeks ago, a rather important milestone, as the spacecraft maintained its collision course towards Dimorphos.
The goal of DART is to answer a question that NASA has been asking for a long time: Will we be able to deflect an asteroid heading for Earth? Neither Didymos nor the tiny Dimorphos pose a threat to humanity, but they will pass relatively close to Earth, making them a good testing ground.
We all know from dinosaurs what can happen if an asteroid collides with our planet. NASA tracks space objects that pass close to Earth and calls them Near Earth Objects (NEO). None of the NEOs we know of are currently on a collision course, and when you read headlines warning that one of them will pass nearby, don’t worry: “close” in astronomical terms generally remains very far. DART will collide with Dimorphos some 11 million kilometers from Earth in September 2022, if all goes according to plan.
The image above was taken using the spacecraft’s DRACO telescopic camera, when DART was about 3.2 million kilometers from Earth. The area in the image 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 that it will launch 10 days prior to arrival in the Didymos system. The camera took another image three days after the first. In it he captured Messier 38, a star cluster that is about 4,200 light years from Earth.
As DART continues on its way, DRACO will take images to help the DART team better understand optical imperfections and properly calibrate brightness. All that information will come in handy before the last series of photos, which will be captured in about nine months.
Regardless of whether or not the DART mission succeeds in changing the orbital trajectory of Dimorphos, this collision would demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft to navigate autonomously and kinetically impact an asteroid. Hopefully, we won’t need to carry out a real mission like this ever.