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Two of the most powerful telescopes in space this week observed a NASA spacecraft deliberately colliding with an asteroid.
The James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope captured images of the Double Asteroid Redirect Test, or DART, spacecraft that crashed into Dimorphos on Monday. The images were released on Thursday.
Both observatories witnessed humanity’s first test of asteroid deflection technology. While neither Dimorphos nor Didymos, the larger the asteroid it orbits, pose a threat to Earth, the double asteroid system was an ideal target for the DART spacecraft to attempt to slightly alter the motion of an asteroid.
The Webb and Hubble images can be used to learn more about Dimorphos’ surface, which had never been seen until these detailed views collected by DART came back from the spacecraft on Monday. Telescope observations can also shed light on how much material was present it was released from the asteroid’s surface at the time of impact and how quickly it was ejected.
The two telescopes view the universe at different wavelengths of light, which may indicate whether the cloud of material was dusty or included larger chunks of rock.
Scientists will use observations from Webb and Hubble, along with ground-based telescopes, to determine whether DART has successfully altered the asteroid’s motion.
The Webb Telescope was not designed to track fast asteroids. but the observatory team was able to lock onto Dimorphos and capture 10 images of the asteroid. Webb’s Near Infrared Camera was used to observe smooth plumes of material moving away from the impact point. Additional Webb instruments will observe the asteroid in the future to reveal additional information about its composition.
Hubble observed Dimorphos with Wide Field Camera 3 before the collision, as well as 15 minutes after the collision, to watch things unfold in visible light. The observatory took 45 images.
The material ejected by the impact looks like the rays released from the asteroid. The most noticeable spike on the left is where DART hit the asteroid. But astronomers noticed that some of the rays seem slightly curved, and they want to study them to determine why.
Didymos appeared to light up three times after the collision and remained stable eight hours later, as captured by Hubble.
Hubble will continue to watch Dimorphos for the next three weeks to see how the plume expands and dissipates.
On Tuesday, the first images were released It followed the DART mission from ground-based telescopes and Italy’s LICIACube, a shoebox-sized satellite.
Together, the data from so many different perspectives of the collision will inform another mission that plans to go to the impact site.
In 2024, the European Space Agency’s Hera mission will launch to study the double asteroid system in great detail.
“We’ve been watching the impact of DART for more than 17 years, and it’s exciting to see it through the eyes of the largest space observatories, Webb and Hubble,” Hera mission manager Ian Carnelli said in a statement. “These images give us clues about what happened in the first hours after the impact, and it’s clear that a lot more is going on than we thought.”