NASA‘s Double Asteroid Redirect Test–the DART probe–successfully collided with the asteroid Dimorphos on Monday, Sept. 26. The collision knocked the asteroid off course, and NASA technicians were waiting to see if the impact shortened the asteroid’s orbit. Now, new images show the aftermath of DART’s impact in the night sky.
A team of astronomers using the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, called SOAR, captured the images. The telescope is located at the National Science Foundation NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The image looks like a comet in the dark sky, but that long tail is actually debris from the collision. The trail stretched 6,213 miles from the impact and is being pushed away from the asteroid by the Sun’s radiation pressure just like a comet tail, according to a report from CNN.
“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 Arizona’s Lowell Observatory. The telescope captured the images two days after the impact, on Sept. 28.
The Italian CubeSat LICIACube has also sent images from its perspective following behind the DART probe in orbit around the larger asteroid Didymos. In those images, material shoots off from the asteroid, brightly lit by the Sun. The Hubble and Webb telescopes have also shared what the impact looked like from their perspective and differing wavelengths.
DART Makes Successful Collision While NASA Awaits Evidence the Asteroid Changed Course
Now NASA has the task of analyzing its data to see whether the project worked completely. While the asteroid did change course, NASA is waiting to see if the asteroid’s orbit has shortened. Dimorphos sits at a 12-hour orbit around Didymos, and the mission will be a success if the orbit is shortened by several minutes.
The goal of DART as a project was to determine if something like this could be used to divert a more dangerous asteroid. Essentially, NASA was testing if this planetary defense system could prevent a “doomsday impact.” Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos pose a threat to Earth, which is what made them the perfect test subjects.
DART collided with Dimorphos at around 7:15 pm on Sept. 26. The DRACO camera on the probe caught footage of the approach before blacking out. This, along with the subsequent images, proved that the impact was successful. The control room burst into cheers and excitement as the technicians and engineers celebrated the success. NASA threw a vending machine at something the size of a football stadium at 14,000 mph hoping to divert its course, and it worked. I’d say that’s a step in the right direction for the future of planetary defense.