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DART’s Small Satellite Companion Tests Camera Prior to Dimorphos Impact

Image of the Earth acquired by LICIACube’s LEIA camera on Sept. 21, 2022.

Credit: ASI/NASA

Image of the Pleiades star cluster acquired by LICIACube’s LUKE camera on Sept. 22, 2022.

Credit: ASI/NASA

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) is set to make history next Monday as the world’s first planetary defense test, and the spacecraft’s own “mini-photographer” LICIACube (short for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids) is warming up to capture the event.

Earlier this week, as part of the process to calibrate the miniature spacecraft and its cameras, LICIACube captured these striking images of a crescent Earth and the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters.

LICIACube (pronounced LEE-cha-cube), which the Italian Space Agency (ASI) contributed, deployed from the DART spacecraft on Sept. 11. It’s programmed to document the effects of DART’s impact, capturing unique images of the asteroid surface as well as of the debris ejected from the newly formed crater with its two optical cameras: LUKE (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and LEIA (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid). Each camera will collect scientific data to inform the microsatellite’s autonomous system by finding and tracking the target asteroid Dimorphos throughout DART’s encounter.

On Monday, LICIACube will fly past Dimorphos about three minutes after DART impacts. The CubeSat’s goals are to confirm the spacecraft impact, observe the evolution of the ejected plume, potentially capture images of the newly formed impact crater, and image the opposite hemisphere of Dimorphos that DART will never see.

The LICIACube project is managed by the ASI Robotic Exploration Mission Office, with industrial contractor Argotec S.r.I. and a scientific team from the National Institute of Astrophysics, Polytechnic University of Milan, the University of Bologna, the University of Naples Parthenope, and the National Research Council "Nello Carrara" Institute of Applied Physics.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the DART mission for NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office as a project of the agency's Planetary Missions Program Office. DART is the world's first planetary defense test mission, intentionally executing a kinetic impact into Dimorphos to slightly change its motion in space. While the asteroid does not pose any threat to Earth, the DART mission will demonstrate that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a kinetic impact on a relatively small asteroid and prove this is a viable technique to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth if one is ever discovered. DART will reach its target on Sept. 26, 2022.