NASA is two weeks away from intentionally crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid, and scientists believe the images returned from the impact are worth the wait.
On September 26, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test spacecraft, known as the DART, will be used as a battering ram to crash into an asteroid not far from Earth.
DART recently got its first glimpse of Didymos, the twin asteroid system that includes its target, Dimorphos.
An image taken 20 million kilometers away showed that the Didymos system was quite weak. Yet once a series of images taken by Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) were combined, astronomers were able to pinpoint the exact location of Dimorphos.
DART’s camera continues to send back images of Didymos as it feeds images to the spacecraft’s algorithm to steer the spacecraft as it nears the moon. He uses a navigation system called Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real-Time Navigation or SMART Nav to guide himself.
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“We’re coming in at four miles per second, and so we can’t just sit there with our controller and joystick and kind of steer it,” Andy Rivkin, planetary astronomer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said of the system. navigation. “The camera will take pictures. It will send them to the computer. The computer will say, “OK, we need to go a little left. We need to go a little right” and take us and then send those images back to Earth as well.
About 8 hours before impact, the team passes control to the SMART Nav system as they “pat him on the head and say good luck to him,” Rivkin said.
In the final hours, DART selects the impact site and heads down. It will continue to resend images until it can’t take any more.
“It’s going to start out as a small point of light, and then eventually it’s going to zoom in and fill the entire field of view with the images coming back. You’ll be able to see things that can be centimeters of a pixel, and those images will continue until “They don’t anymore. So this will be a pretty definitive look at the final moments of the DART spacecraft,” said Nancy Chabot, DART coordination lead.
Scientists say DART’s success will ultimately depend on its ability to see and process images of Didymos and Dimorphos to guide the spacecraft to the asteroid, particularly in the last four hours before impact. At this point, DART will need to navigate on its own to make a successful impact with Dimorphos without any human intervention.
“These images are coming back to Earth at a rate of one per second, and the plan is to broadcast them live on the NASA TV broadcast. And like I said, they’ll be pretty amazing,” Chabot explained.
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And once the impact happens, scientists will use satellite and ground-based telescopes to see if their plan worked.
Toaster-sized satellite for returning images
On Sunday, DART deployed a tiny Italian Space Agency satellite called LICIACube to record the collision and its aftermath.
LICIACUbe is about the size of a cereal box and has two cameras nicknamed after “Star Wars” characters: LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid).
LICIACube will then fly over Dimorphos approximately three minutes after DART disappears to capture images of the effects of the impact.
“I’m very excited for it to be out there and flying because we want to see some incredible images, some of the latest star images right there from this little CubeSat. It’s technology that, there’s something like 10, 15, seemed crazy to be used in that context,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said Monday.
Watch from afar
Meanwhile, the James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes will observe the asteroid system and measure Dimorphos’ change in orbit around Didymos.
Once DART touches Dimorphos, it will change its orbit in the binary system. The DART survey team will compare the results of the kinetic impact of DART with Dimorphos to very detailed computer simulations of the kinetic effects on asteroids.
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After the impact, the survey team will measure how far the asteroid is deflected using telescopes on Earth.
Telescopic observations, images captured by DRACO, images of the LICIACube impact and data subsequently collected by the European Space Agency’s Hera mission will help scientists build more accurate models to better prepare if ever a future threat of asteroid impact had to be discovered.
NASA plans to hold live coverage of the DART impact with asteroid Dimorphos on its website and social media channels.
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