NASA asteroid crash leaves trail of debris more than 6,000 miles long

Astronomers using the NSF’s NOIRLab’s SOAR telescope in Chile captured the vast plume of dust and debris blasted from the surface of the asteroid Dimorphos by NASA’s DART spacecraft when it impacted on Sept. 26, 2022. 


NASA’s $325 million mission last week to intentionally crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to throw it off its course has created a more than 6,000-mile-long trail of debris across space. An image released Monday shows that after the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft slammed into the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26, dust and debris that was blown off the surface of the space rock from the impact had formed a comet-like tail. 

An image of the vast plume of dust and debris was captured by astronomers Teddy Kareta from the Lowell Observatory and Matthew Night from the U.S. Naval Academy using the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope at the National Science Foundation-funded NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile just two days after the crash test. The plume has been pushed away by the sun’s radiation, not unlike the tail of a comet. Astronomers estimated the tail was around 6,200 miles long. Prior to the impact, scientists estimated that Dimorphos was about 525 feet wide.

“It is amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact,” Kareta said in a news release.

“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,” Knight said, adding that the team plans to use SOAR to continue monitoring the debris trail in the coming weeks and months. The SOAR team said these observations will provide insight about the surface of Dimorphos, how much material was ejected by the crash, how fast it was ejected, and the size of the particles ejected. 

“Analyzing this information will help scientists protect Earth and its inhabitants by better understanding the amount and nature of the ejecta resulting from an impact, and how that might modify and asteroid’s orbit,” the release said. 

DART was humanity’s first planetary defense test in which an impact of a spacecraft attempted to change the orbit of an asteroid by crashing into it. The test, which was streamed live, was deemed a success after the spacecraft directly made impact with the small asteroid after taking 10 months to reach its target.

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