Last week NASA’s DART spacecraft intentionally crashed in Dimorphos, a small moon orbiting the larger asteroid Didymos. Now a telescope on the ground in Chile has imaged the massive plume created by the impact in the days following the encounter.
The crash was a planetary defense test; NASA is trying to know if a kinetic impactor can change the trajectory of an Earth-bound space rock if we ever spot a large one on a collision course with us. The space agency Center for Near Earth Objects exists to monitor the status of these objects and their orbits.
NASA is still reviewing data from the collision to determine if the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) changed Dimorphos’ orbit around its larger companion, however Pictures from the impact come close and fast from all telescope lenses aimed at the historical event.
The latest images come from the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope in Chile, operated by NOIRLab. The SOAR telescope is located in the foothills of the Andes, an arid environment with clear, light-free skies that make the region ideal for ground-based telescopes.
The expanding Dust trails from the collision are clearly visible, extending to the right corner of the image. according to a NOIRLab release, the debris trail extends approximately 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) from the impact site. Teddy Kareta, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory who was involved in the observation, said in the publication, “It’s amazing how clearly we were able to grasp the structure and magnitude of the aftermath in the days following the impact.”
NASA scientists have yet to issue their commitment to DART’s success, but the impact is a success in itself. More insights into the event soon follow: how much material was ejected from Didymos, how pulverized the material was, and how fast it might have been kicked up. The data could shed important light on the effect kinetic impactors could have on “debris heap” asteroids, which appears to be Dimorphos. Debris pile asteroids exhibit loosely bound accumulations of surface material, which could explain these dramatic post-impact views of the Moon.
Nearby in Chile, the Sky survey by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will start soon. Its duties include assessing potentially dangerous objects near Earth – although given the recent test, perhaps the asteroids should be worried about us.