Skip to main content

NASA’s DART spacecraft gets its first glimpse of target asteroid

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft has caught its first glimpse of the asteroid that it’s set to slam into on September 26.

The Dimorphos asteroid poses no threat to Earth, but NASA wants to find out if it can change an asteroid’s flight path by crashing a spacecraft into it so that it can protect our planet from hazardous 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 double-asteroid system that includes the spacecraft’s target, Dimorphos (inside the left circle), about 20 million miles from DART.

The target asteroid in NASA's DART mission.
NASA JPL DART Navigation Team

The image actually comprises 243 separate captures and shows the light from the asteroid Didymos and its orbiting moonlet Dimorphos.

Get your weekly teardown of the tech behind PC gaming
Check your inbox!

NASA said its team wasn’t sure if DRACO would be able to spot the asteroid yet, but after stitching together the numerous images it was able to enhance the final picture and pinpoint Didymos.

DRACO is a key part of DART — indeed it’s the only instrument the spacecraft is carrying — as its data will be used to guide the spacecraft toward the asteroid, especially in the final four hours prior to impact when DART will be required to navigate by itself.

“This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imaging techniques,” Elena Adams, DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a release. “The quality of the image is similar to what we could obtain from ground-based telescopes, but it is important to show that DRACO is working properly and can see its target to make any adjustments needed before we begin using the images to guide the spacecraft into the asteroid autonomously.”

After making a number of trajectory correction maneuvers over the next three weeks, the team is confident that 24 hours prior to hitting the asteroid, it will know the impact point to within a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometers).

Scientists have calculated that Earth is at most risk from asteroids greater than 460 feet (140 meters) in size. There are plenty of asteroids out there that have yet to be discovered by astronomers, so a successful test in just a few weeks’ time could prove vital for our planet’s safety.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
NASA’s Juno spacecraft to pass within 1,000 miles of volcanic moon Io
This image revealing the north polar region of the Jovian moon Io was taken on October 15 by NASA’s Juno. Three of the mountain peaks visible in the upper part of image, near the day-night dividing line, were observed here for the first time by the spacecraft’s JunoCam.

NASA's Juno spacecraft, currently in orbit around Jupiter, will soon be making a close flyby of one of the planet's most dramatic moons, Io. On Saturday, December 30, Juno will come within 1,000 miles of Io, making it the closest spacecraft to that moon in the last 20 years.

Io is an intriguing place because it shows signs of significant volcanic activity, making it the most geologically active body in the solar system. It hosts over 400 active volcanoes, which periodically erupt due to hot magma inside the moon created by friction caused by the gravitational pull between Jupiter and its other large moons.

Read more
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft sends back its first image of a star field
This illustration, updated as of June 2020, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft.

NASA has shared the first images taken by its Psyche mission, which launched in October to study a strange metal asteroid located in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft, which is still on its long journey, is expected to make its arrival at the asteroid in 2029 and is currently between the orbits of Earth and Mars. But it is already testing out its instruments by taking a test image using its two cameras and sending it back to Earth, in a process called first light.

The image captured by Psyche's cameras shows a field of stars in the constellation Pisces. It is a mosaic made from the total of 68 images taken by the two cameras, with its first camera Imager A taking images for the left side and its second camera imager B taking images for the right side.

Read more
NASA laser communications test riding with Psyche sends back its first data
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 8, 2022. DSOC’s gold-capped flight laser transceiver can be seen, near center, attached to the spacecraft.

An experimental test of laser communications riding along with the Psyche mission has sent back its first data, in a demonstration of the use of laser communications for deep space missions. The Deep Space Optical Communications, or DSOC experiment, is attached to the Psyche spacecraft, which is currently heading toward an asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter following its launch last month.

Communications for NASA deep space missions are handled by the Deep Space Network, a network of antennae at three sites around the world that primarily use radio. But laser communications could offer 10 to 100 times as much bandwidth, so NASA wants to experiment with using this technology in situations like transferring science data.

Read more