Rae PaolettaSep 26, 2022

See DART’s final images before it smashed into an asteroid

Today, Sept. 26, an unsuspecting asteroid was confronted by a NASA spacecraft sent to rock its rocky world. If the walloping went well, it could help protect Earth from dangerous asteroids down the line.

At 7:14 p.m. EDT (23:14 UTC), the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft ended its 10-month mission by colliding with Dimorphos, the satellite of a near-Earth asteroid called Didymos. DART aims to move the moonlet closer to its parent asteroid, changing its orbital period from 11.9 to 11.8 hours. It’s a seemingly small change with potentially huge implications.

With DART, NASA is testing the efficacy of a planetary defense strategy known as the kinetic impactor technique. In this method, a spacecraft must travel fast enough to not only hit, but move, an asteroid off its typical course so its path is no longer a threat to Earth. By measuring how far Dimorphos budged, scientists will better understand how viable the kinetic impactor technique is in real-life.

We’ll have some early updates on that soon. In the next few weeks or months, we could have images of DART’s impact and aftermath thanks to the Italian Space Agency’s LICIACube. LICIACube, or the Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, hitched a ride to the Didymos system with DART to document today’s events.

Ground-based telescopes will also give us some insight into DART’s collision, but it won’t be until ESA’s Hera mission in 2026 that another spacecraft will thoroughly inspect the scene.

So while DART’s literal impact is over, its proverbial one lives on. The mystery of what happened is just beginning, and these images from DART's DRACO camera are our first clues:

DART looks at the Didymos system roughly an hour before impact
DART looks at the Didymos system roughly an hour before impact As DART moved closer and closer to impacting Dimorphos, its parent asteroid, Didymos, appeared as a small — but very bright — dot. The moonlet Dimorphos was hardly visible, if at all.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL
Dimorphos and Didymos, five minutes before impact
Dimorphos and Didymos, five minutes before impact Dimorphos (right) appeared as a small dot, while the texture and surface of Didymos (left) became more visible.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL
Dimorphos comes into view
Dimorphos comes into view DART took this image of Dimorphos moments before impact. Its rocky features became more detailed.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University APL
Dimorphos fills the screen just before impact
Dimorphos fills the screen just before impact What started out as a tiny gray dot became much larger in the DRACO camera's view.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL
DART's last complete look at Dimorphos
DART's last complete look at Dimorphos In a thrilling moment, DART captured this view of Dimorphos just as it was about to crash into the asteroid moon. Seconds later, the transmission ended.Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Update (9/27): The Italian Space Agency released the first images from DART's impact taken by its LICIACube instrument. We've included a few of them below.

LICIACube captures a flash from DART's historic impact
LICIACube captures a flash from DART's historic impact On Sept. 27, The Italian Space Agency released the first images its LICIACube took of DART's planned collision with the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos. This image shows a bright, dramatic flash of light from the spacecraft's impact.Image: ASI/NASA
One of LICIACube's stunning views of DART's impact
One of LICIACube's stunning views of DART's impact This image, released on Sept. 27, shows the result of NASA's DART spacecraft crashing into the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos. The Italian Space Agency's LICIACube was the only observer of DART's impact, besides the spacecraft itself.Image: ASI/NASA

You can learn more about The Planetary Society’s efforts to defend Earth from dangerous asteroids here.

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