Since its launch on November 24, 2021, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft has journeyed toward its September 26, 2022 encounter with the binary, near-Earth asteroid system Didymos. Over the past couple of months, DART has captured approximately 150,000 images of various stars — including Vega, a young massive star located 25 light-years away in the constellation of Lyra — using its DRACO camera.
DART launched November 24, 2021, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the United States.
It is the first-ever mission dedicated to investigating and demonstrating one method of asteroid deflection by changing an asteroid’s motion in space through kinetic impact.
Its target is the binary, near-Earth asteroid system Didymos, composed of the roughly 780-m- (2,560-foot) diameter Didymos and the smaller, approximately 160-m- (530-foot) size moonlet Dimorphos, which orbits Didymos. DART will impact Dimorphos to change its orbit within the binary system.
DART carries only one instrument — DRACO, a high-resolution camera inspired by the imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.
Not only will DRACO capture images of Didymos and Dimorphos, but it will simultaneously support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system, SMART Nav, to guide DART to its destination.
By periodically taking images of stars in different parts of the sky, DART is giving the researchers on the ground the data necessary to support ongoing spacecraft testing and rehearsals in preparation for the kinetic impact at the asteroid system.
On May 27, DART pointed the DRACO camera at Vega, one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
“We specifically wanted something bright, and Vega is bright,” said DRACO instrument scientist Carolyn Ernst, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
“We’re taking a series of images and looking for light that could scatter off parts of the camera and end up where it shouldn’t be.”
“We’re doing both long and short exposures to get different measures of what the scattered light can be.”
Even the images that don’t capture the entire star in the field of view are important.
That type of information feeds into the calibration of the DRACO camera, setting it up for success when it images the asteroid Didymos and its moonlet asteroid Dimorphos before targeting and plunging into the latter at a speed of 22,530 km per hour (14,000 mph).
This article is based on text provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.