NASA Spacecraft on Asteroid-Busting Mission Sends Back First Photo

by Jennifer Shea

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a plan in case an asteroid comes careening towards Earth. And Phase One of that plan, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is currently whizzing through space roughly 2 million miles from Earth.

The DART spacecraft’s mission: to crash into an asteroid that’s 11 million miles away from Earth. And now, en route to carrying out that mission, the spacecraft has opened its mechanical eye. Then it took a picture of the interstellar neighborhood it’s traversing.

After taking off from California back in November, the spacecraft finally used its DRACO telescope to snap a photo of its surroundings, the New York Post reports. The spacecraft was apparently near the intersection of Perseus, Aries and Taurus when it took the photo.

Mission Could Lay the Groundwork for a New Planetary Defense System Against Asteroids

Astronomers have counted nearly 26,000 “near-Earth objects” so far. NASA considers approximately 4,700 of those “potentially hazardous objects.” But up until now, humankind hasn’t tested a plan to deal with asteroids that threaten our planet.

If the DART mission goes off without a hitch, it could set the stage for a new planetary defense system to keep those hazardous objects at bay.

Here’s what NASA hopes will happen. The spacecraft will make its way to the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos. The asteroid stretches roughly 2,427 feet across and is located between Earth and Mars.

There’s a moonlet orbiting Didymos closely that could prove to be a useful test case. The spacecraft is set to crash into the moonlet with its battering ram at 15,000 mph. NASA hopes that will change the moonlet’s orbital path.

After the spacecraft makes contact with the moonlet, NASA will use telescopes back here on Earth to verify that its plan worked out. NASA also launched a small cubesat in tandem with DART’s mission. The cubesat will gather data before, during and after the spacecraft’s ramming attempt.

DART Is Scheduled to Hit the Moonlet in September

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are using the DRACO telescope to figure out where DART is and help steer it to its final destination. It should reach that destination on Sept. 26, 2022.

Neither the moonlet nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth. But NASA is excited to find out whether this mission can be used as a blueprint for more critical planetary defense missions in the future. At stake is whether a spacecraft can be used to target and deflect asteroids that pose a threat to Earth.

You can view the photos taken by DART’s DRACO telescope here.