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NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft has transmitted the first photo of its target, the asteroid Dimorphos, and the body around which it orbits, the asteroid Didymos.
DART is an experimental planetary defence spacecraft that will crash into an asteroid to alter its trajectory. In this way, scientists want to determine if the spacecraft can be used to throw potentially dangerous asteroids off course for Earth. By the way, Didymos and Dimorphos pose no threat to our planet.
The image, a stitching of 243 separate photos, was acquired by the Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical Navigation (DRACO) on July 27. It shows Dimorphos and Didymos as a single dot - the spacecraft was 20 million miles (32 million km) away from the asteroid pair at the time, so they appear indistinguishable.
DART mission systems engineer Elena Adams of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, which is managing the mission, said in a statement:
This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imaging techniques. 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.
DART will use DRACO in automatic mode to navigate to a collision point with the smaller of the pair of asteroids. But for now, humans are in charge of everything. Over the next three weeks, the project team will use images every five hours to perform a series of three trajectory-correcting manoeuvres that should take DART precisely to Didymos. Then, after about 24 hours, DART will take over control to determine the exact course for the final approach.
DART is scheduled to collide with Dimorphos on September 26 at 7:14 p.m. EDT - coverage of this event will be available on NASA TV, including on YouTube.
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