Jupiter and its major moons, imaged by the DART spacecraft


NASA’s DART planetary defense mission, en route to impact with an asteroid this September 26has captured an image that encompasses the planet Jupiter and its four largest moons.

On its way, the spacecraft’s imager, instrument DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation) has taken thousands of images of stars. The images provide the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) team leading the NASA mission with the data needed to support the spacecraft’s ongoing tests and trials in preparation for the spacecraft’s kinetic impact on Dimorphos. , the moon of Didymos.

DRACO will capture images of Didymos and Dimorphos; it will also support the spacecraft’s autonomous guidance system, small-body maneuvering real-time autonomous navigation (SMART Nav), to guide DART to impact.

July 1 and August 2, the mission operations team pointed the DRACO imager at Jupiter to test the SMART Nav system. The team used it to detect and target Jupiter’s moon Europa as it emerged behind Jupiter, similar to how Dimorphos will visually separate from the larger asteroid Didymos in the hours before impact. While the test obviously did not involve DART colliding with Jupiter or its moons, it did give the APL-led SMART Nav team an opportunity to assess how well the SMART Nav system performs in flight. Prior to this Jupiter test, SMART Nav tests were performed using ground simulations.

The SMART Nav team gained valuable experience from the test, including how the SMART Nav team views data from the spacecraft. “Every time we do one of these tests, we tweak the screens, make them a little better and a little more responsive to what we’ll actually be looking at during the actual terminal event,” he said. it’s a statement Peter Ericksen, SMART Nav software engineer. in APL.

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The DART spacecraft is designed to operate fully autonomously during terminal approach, but the SMART Nav team will monitor how objects in the scene are tracked, including their intensities, number of pixels and how consistently they are identified. Corrective action using pre-planned contingencies will only be taken if there are significant and mission-threatening deviations from expectations. With Jupiter and its moons, the team had the opportunity to better understand how the intensities and number of pixels of objects can vary as targets move across the detector.

“The Jupiter probes gave us a chance for DRACO to get an image of something in our own solar system,” said Carolyn Ernst, DRACO instrument scientist at APL. “The images look fantastic and we are excited for what DRACO will reveal about Didymos and Dimorphos in the hours and minutes before impact!”

DRACO is a high resolution camera inspired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft imager which returned the first close-up images of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth.

DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission, which intentionally executes a kinetic impact on Dimorphos to slightly change its movement in space. While no known asteroids pose a threat to Earth, the DART mission will demonstrate that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a kinetic impact on a relatively small target asteroid, and that this is a viable technique for deflecting a really dangerous asteroid, if one is ever discovered.

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