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NASA’s DART Spacecraft Opens Its “Eye” for the First Time

NASA’s Dart Spacecraft has officially been activated after 2 weeks from its launch, and has sent back its first pictures from space. An article by NASA describes the event as the Dart Spacecraft opening its “eye.”

However, this process came at some risk. The article describes the difficulty of activating the spacecraft. “After the violent vibrations of launch and the extreme temperature shift to minus 80 degrees C in space, scientists and engineers at the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, held their breath in anticipation. Because components of the spacecraft’s telescopic instrument are sensitive to movements as small as 5 millionths of a meter, even a tiny shift of something in the instrument could be very serious.”

The spacecraft opened the circular door covering its telescopic camera on December 7th, and sent back the image of its surrounding environment. The images were taken from a distance of 2 million miles, or 11 light seconds, which is close by astronomical standards. The images displayed incredibly clear and sharp images of nearby stars.

“The DART navigation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used the stars in the image to determine precisely how DRACO was oriented, providing the first measurements of how the camera is pointed relative to the spacecraft. With those measurements in hand, the DART team could accurately move the spacecraft to point DRACO at objects of interest, such as Messier 38 (M38), also known as the Starfish Cluster, that DART captured in another image on Dec. 10. Located in the constellation Auriga, the cluster of stars lies some 4,200 light-years from Earth. Intentionally capturing images with many stars like M38 helps the team characterize optical imperfections in the images as well as calibrate how absolutely bright an object is — all important details for accurate measurements when DRACO starts imaging the spacecraft’s destination, the binary asteroid system Didymos.”

NASA has had countless successful missions throughout the course of 2021, such as the Mars Perseverance Rover, the launch of the James Webb Telescope, progress on the Artemis Moon mission, and finally the DART spacecraft. All of these missions expand our boundaries in space exploration, allowing for a much more vast knowledge of our universe.

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