NASA's Asteroid-Punching Test Leaves Trail of Destruction 6,000 Miles Long

The jury's still out on whether the DART mission managed to knock an asteroid off-course, but its trail of debris is very impressive.
NASA's Asteroid-Punching Test Leaves Trail of Destruction 6,000 Miles Long

A NASA spacecraft that intentionally crashed into an asteroid last week kicked up so much debris that a dusty trail now extends 6,000 miles into space from the impact site, according to observations by astronomers. 

The shimmering outline of the trail appears in a stunning new image from Chile’s Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope, released on Monday by the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab, which operates SOAR.


The radiant trail is the latest in a series of speculatular shots that have emerged since NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a refrigerator-sized spacecraft, slammed itself into the small asteroid Dimorphos, which measures about 550 feet across and orbits a larger asteroid called Didymos. DART is humanity’s first attempt to move a celestial object into a new trajectory, a feat that could one day help defend Earth from hazardous space rocks on collision courses with our planet.

There is no chance that Dimorphos and Didymos might collide with Earth, either before or after the test, as the system does not pass close enough to our planet. DART is only a test of a planetary defense strategy that aims to nudge any future hazardous asteroids slightly off-course so that they don’t hit our world. The goal is to change Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, such as shortening the time it takes to circle its companion by a few minutes. 

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It’s still unclear if the impact produced this orbital shift, but in the meantime, there has been no lack of amazing footage of the collision and its fallout. For starters, DART live streamed its own final moments in a series of shots that show Dimorphos eerily getting closer and closer until the feed cuts out because, well, the camera was onboard a spacecraft that just smacked into an asteroid at 14,000 miles per hour.


DART’s wild first-person footage of the crash was only the beginning. Telescopes on Earth and in space watched the moment that the probe hit Dimoprhos, producing an eruption of debris that looks like a brightened pulse in many timelapses of the event. The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), located in Hawaii, was among the first to release its images. Heavy hitters in space, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, also captured incredible views of the event.

Close-up images of the impact were also taken by the Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), a small spacecraft that was performing a flyby about 34 miles from Dimorphos when DART kaputed on the asteroid’s surface.

Taken together, the images offer an incredible visual record of a milestone in space history that runs the gamut from lofty faraway perspectives to a movie shot from the POV of a doomed spacecraft. 

Scientists plan to build on these amazing first glimpses of the impact and its aftermath with long-term observations of the Didymos system that will reveal whether DART appreciably altered the course of Dimorphos’ orbit. The European Space Agency also plans to launch a follow-up mission, called Hera, in 2024, which will journey to the Didymos system and capture close views of the asteroids five years after the crash.

“It is amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact,” said Teddy Kareta, a researcher at the Lowell Observatory and SOAR team member, in a statement about the new image on Monday. 

“Now begins the next phase of work for the DART team as they analyze their data and observations by our team and other observers around the world who shared in studying this exciting event,” added Matthew Knight, a fellow SOAR researcher and physicist at the US Naval Academy, in the statement. “We plan to use SOAR to monitor the ejecta in the coming weeks and months.”