Nasa’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or Dart, has returned its first image of the asteroid Dimorphos, a space rock the mission is destined to crash into in less than a month.

Taken from around 20 million miles away, the fuzzy composite image shows the small asteroid Dimorphos, and its larger companion asteroid, Didymos, which is about a half mile in diameter. Both show up as mere points of light in the Dart spacecraft’s Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation, or Draco instrument.

Dart took the images making up the composite image on 27 July, and Nasa published the images in a blog post on Wednesday.

“This first set of images is being used as a test to prove our imaging techniques,” Elena Adams, the DART mission systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which operates Dart for Nasa, said in a statement. “The quality of the image is similar to what we could obtain from ground-based telescopes, but it is important to show that Draco is working properly and can see its target to make any adjustments needed.”

Dimorphos orbits Didymos, and the pair together orbit the Sun on a path that sometimes brings them close to Earth, but never close enough to threaten our planet. Launched on 24 November, 2021, Dart’s mission is to rendezvous with the asteroid pair around 6.8 million miles from Earth and slam into Dimorphos at around 14,000 miles per hour to see how much the impact can change the smaller asteroid’s orbit around Didymos.

Dart will impact the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm EDT on Monday 26 September. Live coverage will begin at 6pm ET on Nasa’s website, Nasa TV, and the space agency’s social media accounts on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.

The data from the impact experiment will help Nasa and scientists studying how a similar, but larger scale version of the Dart mission could be used to deflect an asteroid that really did pose a threat to Earth. It’s Nasa’s first planetary defense test mission.

The data from the impact experiment will help Nasa and scientists studying how a similar, but larger scale version of the Dart mission could be used to deflect an asteroid that really did pose a threat to Earth. It’s Nasa’s first planetary defense test mission, a fact Nasa’s associate director for the space agency’s science mission directorate, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, pointed out on Twitter Wednesday.

Operators at APL will guide Dart as it approaches Dimormphos over the next few weeks, making three course correction maneuvers through 25 September. After that point, Dart will be on its own, using the Draco instrument to autonomously guide itself toward its terminal destination on the surface of Dimorphos.

The immediate effects of Dart’s collision with Dimorphos, if successful, will be photographed by a small satellite carried by Dart and released prior to impact. The longer term effects of the impact, and thus the potential for Dart-like missions to actually divert dangerous asteroids, will be assessed by the European Space Agency’s HERA mission when it arrives at Dimorphos in 2027.

Source