SMART Nav: Giving Spacecraft the Power to Guide Themselves

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Animation still of target on Didymos system
DART's SMART Nav algorithms, in conjunction with the spacecraft's guidance and navigation system, is a technology that makes DART's mission possible. They'll identify the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos and autonomously guide the spacecraft into it, as shown in the artist's conception from DART's point of view. The parent asteroid Didymos is to the right. Credit: Johns Hopkins APL via

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will be the first-ever mission to test a way to protect Earth from an asteroid strike. But to ensure DART hits its harmless test target, scientists and engineers at Johns Hopkins APL developed a guidance system unlike anything used on spacecraft before — a system that can direct a spacecraft entirely on its own without any human intervention.​ 

SMART Nav is a set of computational algorithms on DART that, with the rest of the spacecraft's guidance and navigation system, will independently find the moonlet asteroid Dimorphos and guide the spacecraft into it. Scientists knew from the outset of DART's development that the mission would need an autonomous component, but it had to be very different -- something that was free to self-inform and make decisions on its own. 

"With SMART Nav, it’s no longer about just keeping the spacecraft in a prescribed orientation or carrying out correction maneuvers. It’s about conducting the entirety of the last four hours of the mission without any human intervention", said Mark Jensenius, a guidance and navigation control engineer on the SMART Nav team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “It’s about locating objects in space, selecting the correct asteroid, estimating trajectory corrections and commanding maneuvers on-the-fly to achieve the higher-level directive of ‘hit Dimorphos.’”

Experience the full story of SMART Nav, the new technology that will help make DART’s kinetic impact with Dimorphos possible, in this new interactive scrolling story:

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