NASA's DART spacecraft dislodged 1 million kg of debris with asteroid collision

A series of new studies determined that NASA's DART method is a viable technique for planetary defense.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of NASA's DART spacecraft.
An artist's impression of NASA's DART spacecraft.

NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Steve Gribben 

Last year, NASA purposefully slammed its DART spacecraft into a twin asteroid system called Didymos to test a planetary defense method.

This week, five scientific papers were published confirming the technique works, with one presenting evidence that NASA's DART spacecraft dislodged a massive one million kilograms (2.2 million pounds) of debris from its target asteroid.

To mark the occasion, NASA has also released a time-lapse video of the impact captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

New studies analyze NASA's biggest planetary defense test

The five new studies, published in the journal Nature, detail the DART spacecraft's impact and its aftereffects. In September last year, DART smashed into the asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits around the larger Didymos asteroid to make up the Didymos system.

In October, the space agency confirmed that initial observations showed that the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission reduced the orbital period of Dimorphos around Didymos by roughly 32 minutes.

That might seem like a relatively small amount, but a relatively small change can massively alter the trajectory of a space rock over months and years.

The trick is in spotting a potentially hazardous asteroid headed toward Earth well ahead of time. Thankfully, Didymos poses no danger to Earth, and it was merely used as a test subject for NASA's planetary defense test.

The true extent of NASA's DART asteroid collision

Now, the new scientific papers confirm that the DART technique is a viable method for other potentially dangerous space rocks. They also provide surprising new details about the mission, such as the fact that it dislodged one million kilograms of debris from Dimorphos's 4.3-billion-kilogram mass.

They also reveal that Dimorphos' surface featured far more rocks and boulders than expected. What's more, the massive cloud of dust this caused during the collision actually helped to boost the asteroid into a new orbital period.

"Pre-impact, we expected the impact to shorten Dimorphos' orbit by only about 10 minutes," Tony Farnham, co-author of one of the studies, explained in a statement.

"But after the impact, we learned that the orbital period was shortened even more, reducing an ordinarily 12-hour orbit by slightly more than 30 minutes. In other words, the ejected material acted as a jet to push the moon even further out of its original orbit."

NASA, meanwhile, has also shared a time-lapse video captured by Hubble of the impact. The fascinating reel shows how the dust cloud ejected by the collision evolved over the hours and days after impact, including its morphing into a twin tail at one point. The video (viewable above) begins 1.3 hours before the collision.

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