Huge 6,000-mile-long debris trail now follows asteroid slammed by Nasa Dart spacecraft

Scientist hope to understand distribution of particle sizes in expanding dust cloud

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 04 October 2022 09:28 BST
NASA Uses First-Time Technology To Hit An Asteroid And Change Its Orbit

New observations of an asteroid slammed by Nasa’s Dart spacecraft last week have revealed the space rock now has a long comet-like tail of dust and debris from the collision stretching thousands of miles across.

The dust trail formed from ejecta blasted from asteroid Dimorphos’s surface on collision with the Dart probe was spotted by astronomers using the Southern Astrophysical Research (Soar) Telescope in Chile.

They estimated the debris likely stretches about 10,000km or 6000 miles from the point of impact on the asteroid.

“It is amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact,” astronomer Teddy Kareta from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona said in a statement.

Nasa made history last week by slamming its Dart spacecraft, travelling at about 6.6kmps, into the football stadium-sized asteroid Dimorphos, about 6.8 million miles from Earth.

The mission is a proof-of-concept test to understand the feasibility of deflecting an asteroid off its trajectory – a move that could potentially help protect Earth from dangerous space rocks in the future.

“Dart is demonstrating what we call the kinetic impact technique for changing the speed of the asteroid in space and therefore changing its orbit. This demonstration is extremely important to our future here on the earth, and life on Earth,” Nasa’s planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson had said in a statement.

Since the milestone collision of the Dart probe with Dimorphous, scientists have been releasing images and data from telescopes and ground-based observations, shedding light on the extent to which the mission has impacted the space rock.

In the next phase of work, scientists hope to continue to monitor the trailing ejecta to unravel more details about the nature of the surface of asteroid, how much material was ejected from collision, as well as how fast the debris was ejected.

Researchers also hope to understand the distribution of particle sizes in the expanding dust cloud.

Based on these observations, astronomers can estimate whether the impact caused the space rock to throw off big chunks of material or mostly fine dust.

This understanding of the amount and nature of the ejecta resulting from the impact can help researchers assess the feasibility of altering an asteroid’s orbit, which would ultimately help decide how the “kinetic impactor theory” could be applied to protect Earth from such space rocks.

“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. We plan to use Soar to monitor the ejecta in the coming weeks and months,” astronomer Matthew Knight from the US Naval Academy said.

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