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NASA’s DART impact created a tail of asteroid debris more than 10,000 kilometers long

Last month, NASA smashed the spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it would change course.

Key Points:

  • New images show the humongous tail formed by the breakup of NASA’s DART asteroid
  • It could take weeks for scientists to confirm whether the asteroid’s orbit has changed
  • The purpose of the mission was to determine if scientists could save Earth from a possible asteroid collision

Now a new image of the unprecedented crash following the DART mission has been released.

Two days after the initial collision with asteroid moon Dimorphos, the image shows an expanding comet-like tail more than 10,000 kilometers long.

It consists of dust and other material ejected from the impact crater.

The image was captured by Matthew Knight of the US Naval Research Laboratory and Teddy Kareta of the Lowell Observatory using the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope in Chile.

This stream accelerates away from the harmless asteroid, largely due to solar radiation pressure.

Scientists expect the tail to become even longer and spread out further, becoming so faint that it cannot be detected.

“At this point, the material is just like any other dust floating around the Solar System,” Knight said.

More observations are planned to determine how much and what kind of material was thrown from the 160-meter Dimorphos.

The diameter of asteroids compared to the height of buildings and the length of the DART spacecraft. (ABC: Modified from NASA/Johns Hopkins APL)

Wait, let’s rewind, what is DART again?

DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

It was the world’s first NASA test to see if a spacecraft had the ability to deflect an asteroid.

The entire project cost $487.5 million, which is actually less than many of NASA’s most ambitious science missions.

For example, the James Webb Space Telescope, which has given us these amazing photos, cost $15 billion.

But why would some of the world’s brightest scientists spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deliberately crash a spacecraft?

The official answer is to learn more about “planetary protection”. Space engineers want to know if we could derail a species-ending asteroid if it ever heads for Earth.

DART is the first full-scale mission to test this technology.

So, did it work?

We don’t know yet.

We know that DART slammed directly into Dimorphos (hence the huge trail of space dust we see now), but it will be weeks before we know if the impact changed the asteroid’s course.

NASA is currently tracking the asteroid’s new orbit, but expects an orbital shift of about 1%, which may not seem like much, but NASA scientists have pointed out would make a significant difference over the years.

Hopes are high for this potentially world-saving technology, as Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary protection officer, said DART has shown that “we are no longer capable of preventing these types of natural disasters.”

AP/ABC

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