The astonishing aftermath of NASA’s mission to deliberately smash a spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,000km/h has been caught on camera by two of the world’s most powerful space telescopes.
Hubble and the US space agency’s new superspace observatory, the James Webb, both captured views of the first-ever planetary defense experiment, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) attempting to knock a space rock off course.
It was the world’s first test of a kinetic disintegration technique, using a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid that poses no threat to Earth and change the object’s orbit.
Monday at At 19:14 ET (00:14 BST Tuesday), DART intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the asteroid moon in the Didymos binary asteroid system.
Both Webb and Hubble simultaneously observed the same celestial target from a distance, and NASA has now released time-lapse footage and images of the impact, with one expert calling it an ‘unprecedented view of an unprecedented event’.
The stunning aftermath of NASA’s mission to deliberately smash a spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,000km/h has been caught on camera by two of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Hubble’s visible light image is pictured on the left and Webb’s infrared image is shown on the right
James Webb captured views of the first-ever planetary defense experiment, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) attempting to knock a space rock off course
It was the world’s first test of a kinetic disintegration technique, using a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid that poses no threat to Earth and change the object’s orbit. The image shows the aftermath recorded by Hubble 22 minutes, five hours and 8 hours after the impact
WHAT IS THE NASA DART MISSION?
DART will be the world’s first planetary defense test mission.
It is headed for the small lunar asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger companion asteroid called Didymos.
When it gets there, it will purposely crash into the asteroid to slightly alter its trajectory.
Although neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth, DART’s kinetic impact will prove that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to a target asteroid and kinetically impact it.
Then, by using ground-based telescopes to measure the effects of the impact on the asteroid system, the mission will improve modeling and prediction capabilities to help us better prepare for an actual asteroid threat, should one ever be detected.
Although this asteroid posed no threat to Earth, the hope is that if the mission is successful – as assumed – then it can serve as a strategy to defend our planet against future threats from space.
“Webb and Hubble demonstrate what we have always known to be true at NASA: We learn more when we work together,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
‘For the first time, Webb and Hubble have simultaneously captured images of the same target in the cosmos: an asteroid struck by a spacecraft after a journey of seven million kilometres.
‘All of humanity is eagerly awaiting the discoveries of Webb, Hubble and our ground-based telescopes – on the DART mission and beyond.’
The coordinated Hubble and Webb observations are more than just an operational milestone for each telescope—there are also important scientific questions about the composition and history of our solar system that scientists can explore when they combine the capabilities of these observatories.
Observations from Webb and Hubble together will allow scientists to learn about the nature of the surface of Dimorphos, how much material was ejected from the collision, and how quickly it was ejected.
The pair captured the impact in different wavelengths of light – Webb in infrared and Hubble in visible.
Observing the impact across a wide range of wavelengths will reveal the distribution of particle sizes in the expanding dust cloud, helping to determine whether it threw off many large chunks or mostly fine dust.
Combining this information, along with ground-based telescope observations, will help scientists understand how effectively a kinetic impact can alter an asteroid’s orbit.
The last complete image of the asteroid moon Dimorphos, taken by the DRACO imager of the DART mission from 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the asteroid and two seconds before impact
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test was launched last November ahead of a year-long journey to crash into the small asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger one called Didymos
Webb took one observation of the impact site before the collision occurred, then several observations over the next few hours.
Images from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) show a dense, compact core, with plumes of material appearing as spikes streaming away from the center of where the impact occurred.
Observing the impact with Webb presented unique challenges to the flight operations, planning and science teams due to the asteroid’s speed of travel across the sky.
As DART neared its target, teams performed additional work in the weeks leading up to impact to enable and test a method to track asteroids moving over three times faster than the original speed limit set for Webb.
“I have nothing but tremendous admiration for the Webb Mission Operations people who made this a reality,” said principal investigator Cristina Thomas of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“We have been planning these observations for years, then in detail for weeks, and I am extremely pleased that it has come to fruition.”
Scientists also plan to observe the asteroid system in the coming months using Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec).
Spectroscopic data will give researchers insight into the asteroid’s chemical composition.
Webb observed the impact over a total of five hours, taking 10 images as Hubble made observations of the binary system prior to impact, then again 15 minutes after DART hit the surface of Dimorphos.
James Webb (pictured) observed the impact over a total of five hours and took 10 images
Hubble, a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), has been observing the universe for over 30 years
Images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 show the impact in visible light with a blown-out tip of the ejecta seen to the left of the asteroid in the general direction from which DART approached.
Some of the rays appear to be slightly curved, but astronomers need to take a closer look at what that might mean.
In the Hubble images, astronomers estimate that the system’s brightness increased threefold after the impact, and they saw that the brightness remained stable even eight hours after the impact.
Hubble plans to observe the Didymos-Dimorphos system 10 more times over the next three weeks.
These regular, relatively long-term observations, as the ejecta cloud expands and fades over time, will paint a more complete picture of the cloud’s expansion from ejection to its disappearance.
“When I saw the data, I was literally speechless, stunned by the amazing detail of the draft that Hubble captured,” said Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who led the Hubble observations.
‘I feel lucky to witness this moment and be part of the team that made this happen.’
Hubble took 45 images in the time immediately before and after DART’s impact with Dimorphos. The Hubble data were collected as part of Cycle 29 General Observers Program 16674.
“This is an unprecedented view of an unprecedented event,” said Andy Rivkin, leader of the DART research team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies
The James Webb Telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back to the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, observing the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The huge telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is seen as a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will work together for a while.
The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It orbits the Earth at a speed of about 17,000 mph (27,300 km/h) in low Earth orbit at about 340 miles in altitude.