The comet-like debris trail was seen after the spacecraft collided with the asteroid


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At first glance, a new image captured by a telescope in Chile looks like a dazzling comet streaking across the night sky, trailing a long, bright tail. Instead, it’s a debris plume created when NASA’s DART spacecraft crashed into the asteroid Dimorphos.

Two days after the deliberate impact on September 26, a team of US astronomers observed the effects from afar using the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope, or SOAR, at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory of the National Science Foundation NOIRLab in Chile.

They saw a debris trail stretching more than 6,213 miles (10,000 kilometers) from Dimorphos’ point of impact. Like a comet’s tail, the dust trail is being pulled away from Dimorphos by the sun’s radiation pressure.

“It’s amazing how clearly we were able to discern the structure and extent of the effects in the days after the impact,” said astronomer Teddy Kareta at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

Space telescopes like Hubble and Webb also followed the impact and shared the first glimpses of what the collision looked like in different wavelengths of light.

And LICIACube, the Italian CubeSat that followed the DART mission, has begun sending back images taken from its stunning vantage point a short distance away when the impact occurred.

The asteroid redirection test was purposely conducted against Dimorphos, an asteroid moon orbiting the larger Didymos space rock, to see if a spacecraft could change the motion of a celestial body in space.

Although asteroids pose no threat to Earth, the mission was the first test of this deflection technology to see if it is viable as a form of planetary defense if a space rock is found to be on its way to impact our planet.

Post-impact observations of the double asteroid system will shed more light on the surface of Dimorphos, which had never been seen before the DART event.

These observations can also help scientists assess how much material exploded from Dimorphos, the size of that debris, and how quickly it escaped into space.

While the spacecraft collided with the asteroid, it will take two months for ground-based telescopes to confirm whether DART successfully altered Dimorphos’ motion.

“Now begins the next phase of the DART team’s work as our team and other observers around the world analyze the data and observations that contributed to this exciting event,” said US Naval Academy astronomer Matthew Knight.