Telescopes and satellites captured clouds and spider-like plumes of debris after NASA smashed a spacecraft into an asteroid

  • In Science
  • 2022-09-28 15:38:23Z
  • By Business Insider
On the left is Didymos, the large asteroid that Dimorphos orbits.
On the left is Didymos, the large asteroid that Dimorphos orbits.  
  • NASA's DART spacecraft successfully crashed into an asteroid on Monday night.

  • Ground- and space-based observations documented the encounter in detail.

  • The mission is a test of NASA's ability to deflect dangerous asteroids off a collision course with Earth.

NASA successfully slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid on Monday night.

The spacecraft took images of its impending doom until the very end, when it rammed into the targeted space rock: Dimorphos. In other corners of the universe, powerful instruments provided detailed views of the impact and its aftermath.

The DART mission, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, slammed a spacecraft into Dimorphos so scientists could see whether the impact nudges the space rock ever so slightly. Dimorphos is around 525 feet in diameter, and it orbits another, larger asteroid - the 2,650-foot-wide Didymos.

"As far as we can tell, our first planetary defense test was a success," Elena Adams, DART's mission systems engineer, said during a livestream after the successful crash. "I think Earthlings should sleep better. Definitely, I will."

From images taken with powerful telescopes and close-up shots from a tiny satellite, behold the first awe-inspiring observations from NASA's test to deflect dangerous asteroids off a collision course with Earth.

Front-row seats to a cosmic collision, courtesy of an Italian satellite

The Italian space agency released the first batch of images from its tiny satellite, called the LICIACube, on Tuesday. DART had deployed the probe on September 11 to capture and transmit images of the celestial encounter.

The satellite has two twin cameras: one with a wider field of view, nicknamed LUKE, and a black-and-white camera, LEIA, which captures high-resolution images.

DART collision with Dimorphos
DART collision with Dimorphos  

At a safe distance from the impact site, the small satellite was able to capture a large cloud of debris after NASA's spacecraft rammed into Dimorphos.

Below, in a zoomed-in view of the collision, a massive plume of ejected material blasts away from battered Dimorphos. The image also shows what appears to be a dent in the middle of the larger asteroid.

LICIACube image showing the dusty aftermath of the DART impact.ASI/NASA
LICIACube image showing the dusty aftermath of the DART impact.ASI/NASA  

The tiny Italian satellite captured spider-like plumes of debris emanating from the targeted space rock, below.

LICIACube image showing the aftermath of the DART impact.
LICIACube image showing the aftermath of the DART impact.  

Larry Denneau, a principal investigator for an asteroid tracking survey called ATLAS, told French news agency AFP that the collision caused a "very, very big" plume of debris that expanded to around "several thousand miles in diameter."

About three minutes post-crash, LICIACube flew within 35 miles of the asteroid Dimorphos, to survey the collision's aftermath. The observations will tell astronomers how much the asteroid's trajectory changed. Astronomers will observe the plume of debris the collision sent flying into space.

"Now weeks and months of hard work are now starting for scientists and technicians involved in this mission, so stay tuned because we will have a lot to tell!" the LICIACube team wrote on Tuesday.

 Telescopes captured views of the crash from Earth

Dimorphos is located about 6.8 million miles away from Earth, but more than two dozen ground-based telescopes focused on the collision.

Observations from the Hawaii-based ATLAS asteroid tracking telescope system, below, show the asteroid system brightening considerably at the moment of impact and a massive plume of rubble emerging from the crash site.


The probe was traveling at more than 14,000 miles per hour before impact. It hit the asteroid about 17 meters from its exact center - an astronomical "bullseye," Adams told reporters on Monday evening.

In collaboration with the European Space Agency, astronomers at the Les Makes observatory, on the French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, also captured footage of the event. A video of observations shared by the observatory, below, condenses about 30 minutes worth of footage into just a few seconds.

"Something like this has never been done before, and we weren't entirely sure what to expect. It was an emotional moment for us as the footage came in," Marco Micheli, an astronomer at the European Space Agency's Near-Earth Object Coordination Center, in a statement.

In a few years, the European Space Agency will launch a mission called Hera to study Didymos and Dimorphos in depth. By observing the deformations caused by the impact, the spacecraft aims to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos' composition and formation.

"The results from DART will prepare us for Hera's visit to the Didymos binary system to examine the aftermath of this impact a few years from now," Ian Carnelli, Hera Mission Manager, in a press release. "Hera will help us understand what happened to Dimorphos, the first celestial body to be measurably moved by humankind."


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