The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid

The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid

NASA’s recent asteroid deflection test has produced a wealth of jaw-dropping imagery, whether the views were taken at the scene or from afar.

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The final full-frame image captured by DART prior to its collision with the Dimorphos asteroid.
The final full-frame image captured by DART prior to its collision with the Dimorphos asteroid.
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA’s DART spacecraft was 6.8 million miles from Earth when it slammed into a football stadium-sized asteroid on Monday. Despite this immense distance, images from the impact and its aftermath are coming in, and they’re proving to be better—and far more bizarre—than we expected.

Going into Monday’s test, it wasn’t clear how much of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test we’d get to see. At the very least, we were hoping to get the POV experience from DART’s onboard camera, called DRACO, and views from the shoebox-sized LICIACube, which trailed closely behind NASA’s doomed spacecraft. They didn’t disappoint.

We also knew that telescopic eyes would be watching from a distance, including ground-based observatories and two fairly famous space-based telescopes, Hubble and Webb. Again, they didn’t disappoint.

It’s still early in terms of the data gathering, but the combined result is that we’re getting a reasonably clear picture of what happened when DART slammed into Dimorphos. This is fantastic in terms of engaging the public in what is a very important mission to deflect an asteroid, but also in terms of the science needed to figure out if it actually worked.

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Didymos and Dimorphos

Didymos and Dimorphos

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

The gravitationally bonded pair are separated by just 3,960 feet (1,200 meters). Didymos, measuring 2,650 feet wide (780 meters), was discovered in 1996 and its moonlet Dimorphos, measuring 520 feet wide (160 meters), was spotted seven years later. We really had no clue what these tiny objects looked like given the vast distances involved, but DART’s high-res DRACO instrument revealed the pair in exquisite detail.

The image above was taken 2.5 minutes prior to impact and at a distance of 570 miles (920 kilometers) to the target asteroid. With DRACO capturing one image per second, and with DART moving at 14,000 miles per hour (22,500 km/hr), this is the last image showing the two objects in a single frame.

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A jumble of rocks

A jumble of rocks

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

This, the last complete image of Dimorphos, was taken when DART was 7 miles (12 km) away and 2 seconds before impact. The image revealed Dimorphos to be an egg-shaped “rubble pile,” an asteroid weakly held together by loose conglomerations of debris, including bits of broken-up asteroids and moons.

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Brace for impact

Brace for impact

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

This tiny patch of Dimorphos is where DART finally met its fate, and it’s the last complete frame produced by the probe. Fair to say, this patch don’t look like that no more, with the 1,376-pound probe plowing directly into its target. The resulting kinetic impact, it is hoped, altered the asteroid’s speed and orbital trajectory around Didymos. Ultimately, the experiment could yield an effective planetary defense strategy against hazardous near-Earth objects.

A key goal of the LICIACube mission was to snap post-impact images of Dimorphos. The European Space Agency’s upcoming HERA mission will likewise attempt to gather images of the impact’s effect on the asteroid.

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When the loss of signal is a good thing

When the loss of signal is a good thing

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

DART was in the process of transmitting its next DRACO frame when it finally crashed onto the surface. This final image provided our first visual confirmation that the spacecraft was no longer among the living and that DART, with pinpoint accuracy, reached its target following a 10-month journey.

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The final five minutes

The final five minutes

[STABLILIZED] Watch NASA’s DART Mission crash into asteroid Dimorphos - DART impact

This stabilized timelapse of the DART experiment shows the final five-and-a-half minutes of the test in just 30 seconds. The video was put together by YouTube channel Spei’s Space News from Germany.

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From a safe distance

From a safe distance

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Image: ASI/NASA

This stunning view of the impact was captured by LICIACube, which was less than 34 miles (55 km) from Dimorphos at the time. DART dispatched the Italian-built probe around two weeks ago and it used its two onboard cameras, LUKE and LEIA, to capture images of the impact and the effect it had on the asteroid. The bright object in the foreground is Didymos.

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My, what large streamers you have

My, what large streamers you have

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: ASI/NASA

An unusually large and complex plume sprouted out from the asteroid as a result of the collision. “I’m shocked by the streamers in the ejecta [the material tossed up by the impact],” tweeted University of Central Florida Planetary Scientist Phil Metzger. In ordinary laboratory impact splash experiments to simulate asteroid impacts “we see nothing like this,” he added.

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Big badda boom

Big badda boom

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: ASI/NASA

Another view of the impact, as imaged by LICIACube, short for the Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging Asteroids. The 31-pound (14-kilogram) probe, Italy’s first deep-space spacecraft, used an autonomous tracker to keep its two cameras locked onto the target asteroid.

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Lots to learn

Lots to learn

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Image: ASI/NASA

The strangeness of the impact plume will be of great interest to scientists, who will undoubtedly study it in great detail. The resulting insights will shed important new light on the asteroid, such as its composition and volume. LICIACube took some 600 images during the encounter, which it’s currently in the process of uplinking to Earth. Indeed, these four images are only the beginning, as the probe performed a close fly-by of Dimorphos to investigate a possible impact crater and capture images of its opposite side.

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The view from Earth

The view from Earth

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: Gianluca Masi (Virtual Telescope Project, Italy) and Berto Monard (Klein Karoo Observatory, South Africa)

This series of images shows the progression of the impact plume in the 20 minutes following the impact. It was taken from the Klein Karoo Observatory in South Africa, in collaboration with Italy’s Virtual Telescope Project. From this distance, the binary asteroid system appears as a single dot in telescopic images.

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A clearly discernible impact plume

A clearly discernible impact plume

DART asteroid impact impresses in ESA’s view from the ground

This video of the plume was captured by astronomers at the Les Makes Observatory in Le Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean. “Something like this has never been done before, and we weren’t entirely sure what to expect,” Marco Micheli, an astronomer at ESA’s Near-Earth Objects Coordination Centre, said in a press release. “It was an emotional moment for us as the footage came in.” At the time of the impact, Didymos was only visible to observatories in the Southern Hemisphere.

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The ATLAS view

The ATLAS view

Gif: ATLAS Project/Gizmodo

The animation above was stitched together by astronomers with the ATLAS project in Hawaii. Ground-based images consistently showed a growing plume moving in the direction of the asteroid. The binary star system is so far that it takes 38 seconds for its light to reach Earth.

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An emerging tail

An emerging tail

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: E. Guido, M. Rocchetto, G. Savini, S. Fossey, Telescope Live

Italian amateur astronomer Ernesto Guido and colleagues used a 0.6-meter telescope operated by Telescope Live Observatory in Chile to capture this light curve image (showing the light intensity of an object) some 29 hours after the impact. A tail or plume is now visible in the Didymos-Dimorphos system, which may eventually wrap around to form a ring.

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The view from space...at a distance

The view from space...at a distance

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Several space-based telescopes were tuned into the encounter, namely Hubble, Webb, and a camera mounted to NASA’s Lucy probe currently en route to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. The image above was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope from the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point, placing it some 6 million miles (9.7 million km) from Didymos. Astronomers used its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to capture this image, showing a “a tight, compact core, with plumes of material appearing as wisps streaming away from the centre of where the impact took place,” according to a European Space Agency press release.

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The view from low Earth orbit

The view from low Earth orbit

Image for article titled The Most Intriguing Images of DART’s Fatal Encounter With an Asteroid
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

These Hubble images, captured by its Wide Field Camera 3, show the impact 22 minutes, 5 hours, and 8.2 hours after the DART experiment. Plenty of material can be seen sprouting out from the asteroid, and some of the rays have a slight curve to them. The brightness of the object increased by three times after the impact, and this brightness held true for a surprisingly long eight-hour period. Astronomers will now study and attempt to explain these fascinating observations.

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