On September 26th, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collided with Dimorphos, the small moonlet that orbits the larger Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Didymos. The purpose was to test a planetary defense technique known as the kinetic impact method, where a spacecraft intentionally collides with a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHAs) to alter its course. Based on a post-collision analysis, NASA determined that DART’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbital period by 33 minutes and caused tons of rock to be ejected from its surface.
Since the collision, NASA has also been monitoring the cloud of ejecta produced by the impact to see how it has since evolved. The purpose of this is to better understand what the DART spacecraft achieved at the impact site, how much of it was delivered by the spacecraft, and how much was due to the recoil produced by the ejection. On December 15th, during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Chicago, members of the DART team provided the preliminary analysis of their findings.
However, as Hollywood loves to remind us, there are scenarios where a planet-killing asteroid gets very close to Earth before we could do anything to stop it. And there is no shortage of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that could become potential threats someday. Hence why space agencies worldwide make it a habit of monitoring them and how close they pass to Earth. According to a new study by a group of satellite experts, it would be possible to build a rapid-response kinetic impactor mission that could rendezvous and deflect a PHA shortly before it collided with Earth.
On September 26th, at 23:14 UTC (07:14 PM EST; 04:14 PM PST), NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft successfully struck the 160-meter (525 ft) moonlet Dimorphos that orbits the larger Didymos asteroid. The event was live-streamed all around the world and showed footage from DART’s Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) as it rapidly approached Dimorphos. In the last few seconds, DART was close enough that individual boulders could be seen on the moonlet’s surface.
About 38 seconds after impact, the time it took the signal to reach Earth, the live stream ended, signaling that DART had successfully impacted Dimorphos and was destroyed in the process. Meanwhile, teams of astronomers stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula watched the impact with their telescopes. One, in particular – the Les Makes Observatory on the island of Le Reunion in the Indian Ocean – captured multiple images of the impact. These were used to create a real-time video and show the asteroid brightening as it was pushed away, followed by material ejected from the surface.