An orbiting satellite has beamed back the first images of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft’s crash into the asteroid Dimorphos.
This week, millions watched as images beamed to Earth from the front of the DART spacecraft showed the rocky surface of Dimorphos with incredible detail before cutting out.
That’s because this spacecraft was set on a collision course for Dimorphos as part of an experiment to see whether the trajectory of a non-threatening asteroid could be altered.
Tailing the DART spacecraft was a far smaller – and completely intact – machine.
The Italian-built LICIACube is a tiny satellite that was released from the DART spacecraft in the week prior to impact.
LICIACube’s job is to capture the aftermath of the crash – taking pictures of the impact crater and ‘ejecta’ (the plume of asteroid debris emanating from it) – and send the pictures back to the mission team for analysis.
Now, the first pictures from LICIACube have been received
They show different angles of the tiny Dimorphos asteroid in orbit around its parent Didymos. They were captured by the cubesat’s twin cameras ‘LUKE’ (LICIACube Unit Key Explorer) and ‘LEIA’ (LICIACube Explorer Imaging for Asteroid).
The LEIA image – taken around 80km from the impact site – gives a crisp look at Didymos with a plume of debris surrounding nearby Dimorphos.
The spectacular LUKE images show the ejecta as a bright plume emanating in all directions from the impact site, with the intact Didymos asteroid unaffected.
At the same time, the Les Makes observatory on the French island territory Réunion (near Madagascar) captured the impact.
Les Makes is a European Space Agency partner observatory, and will be involved in the agency’s upcoming Hera mission, a program to be launched in 2024 that will play the role of DART’s ‘forensic investigator’.
Hera will investigate the Dimorphos asteroid more than three years after this week’s impact and provide updated information about the binary asteroid system.
In the meantime, analysts at NASA and John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory will begin the process of analysing the DART impact to determine whether its orbit has been altered by the impact.
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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