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At first glance, a new image captured by a telescope in Chile looks like a dazzling comet streaking across the night sky, followed by a long, glowing tail. Instead, it’s the debris plume created when NASA’s DART spacecraft crashed into the asteroid Dimorphos.
Two days after the intentional impact on September 26, a US team of astronomers observed the aftermath remotely using the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, or SOAR, at the National Science Foundation NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
They spied a debris trail stretching more than 6,213 miles (10,000 kilometers) from the point of impact on Dimorphos. Like the tail of a comet, the dust trail is being pushed away from Dimorphos by the sun’s radiation pressure.
“It is amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact,” said astronomer Teddy Kareta at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
Space telescopes like Hubble and Webb also followed the impact and have shared their first views of what the collision looked like across different wavelengths of light.
And LICIACube, an Italian CubeSat that followed behind the DART mission, has begun to send back images taken from its stunning perspective just a short distance away when the impact occurred.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test deliberately crashed into Dimorphos, an asteroid moonlet orbiting the larger space rock Didymos, to see whether a spacecraft can change the motion of a celestial body in space.
While neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, the mission was the first test of this deflection technology to see whether it’s viable as a mode of planetary defense, in case a space rock is found to be on a path to impact our planet.
Post-impact observations of the double asteroid system will shed more light on the surface of Dimorphos, which had never been seen until the DART event.
These observations also can help scientists assess how much material was blasted away from Dimorphos, the size of that debris and how quickly it escaped into space.
While the spacecraft was successful in colliding with the asteroid, it will take up to two months for ground-based telescopes to confirm whether DART successfully altered Dimorphos’ motion.
“Now begins the next phase of work for the DART team as they analyze their data and observations by our team and other observers around the world who shared in studying this exciting event,” said astronomer Matthew Knight at the US Naval Academy.