The first images of DART's asteroid crash captured by NASA's LICIACube show impact and debris

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After NASA’s DART spacecraft successfully completed its first planetary defense test last night, the tiny Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) spacecraft captured the moment in its messy glory.

The Italian space agency released a series of images this afternoon that show a before-and-after comparison of the Didymos asteroid system and a bright burst of debris surrounding Dimorphos.

LICIACube is tiny, contains two optical cameras and weighs about 31 pounds. The small spacecraft hitched a ride with DART, which deployed the cubesat on Sept. 11, and is operated from a mission control center in Turin, Italy.

‘We’re really very proud,’ Elisabetta Dotto, science team lead at Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), said during a news conference held in Italian on Tuesday. 

After NASA's DART spacecraft successfully completed its first planetary defense test last night, the tiny Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) spacecraft captured the moment in its messy glory

After NASA ‘s DART spacecraft successfully completed its first planetary defense test last night, the tiny Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) spacecraft captured the moment in its messy glory

The Italian space agency released a series of images this afternoon that show a before-and-after comparison of the Didymos asteroid system and a bright burst of debris surrounding Dimorphos

The Italian space agency released a series of images this afternoon that show a before-and-after comparison of the Didymos asteroid system and a bright burst of debris surrounding Dimorphos

The images will help researchers gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition, Dotto explained, noting that there will be more images released in the coming days. 

In the last image, Dimorphos is blanketed by bright and hazy debris. 

‘Dimorphos is completely covered really by this by this emission of dust and detritus produced by the impact,’ Dotto said, according to Space.com. 

On Monday, the LICIACube stayed at a safe distance as DART zoomed into its target, but then performed a perfectly timed drive-by past the impact site a few minutes later. 

The small but mighty craft is now conducting Italy’s first deep-space mission and will continue to beam images back to Earth. 

NASA’s DART mission slammed into Dimorphos, a smaller space rock circling a larger asteroid called Didymos, to see if it could throw off the orbit of a potential future asteroid that was threatening life on Earth. Scientists will be watching the Didymos system closely to see how much Dimorphos’ orbit actually changed – those results won’t come for at least another two months. 

Confirmation of NASA’s successful planetary defense test came seconds after the 7:14 ET (00:14 BST) 14,000 mph collision, sparking applause among the ground team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. ‘Impact success!’ NASA tweeted after the DART spacecraft collided with the 560 foot asteroid, around 6.7 million miles away from Earth. 

'We're really very proud,' Elisabetta Dotto, science team lead at Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), said during a news conference held in Italian on Tuesday

‘We’re really very proud,’ Elisabetta Dotto, science team lead at Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), said during a news conference held in Italian on Tuesday

LICIACube is tiny, contains two optical cameras and weighs about 31 pounds. The tiny spacecraft hitched a ride with DART, which deployed the cubesat on Sept. 11, and is operated from a mission control center in Turin, Italy

LICIACube is tiny, contains two optical cameras and weighs about 31 pounds. The tiny spacecraft hitched a ride with DART, which deployed the cubesat on Sept. 11, and is operated from a mission control center in Turin, Italy

By striking Dimorphos head on, NASA hopes it pushed it into a smaller orbit, shaving 10 minutes off the time it takes to circle Didymos, which is currently 11 hours and 55 minutes. 

The space probe used what is called kinetic impact, which involves sending one or more large, high-speed spacecraft into the path of an approaching near-earth object. 

Such a mission may evoke memories of a Hollywood disaster movie such as Armageddon, but this is very much real and could save Earth from colliding with a deadly space rock.

The last complete image of asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, taken by the DRACO imager on NASA's DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission from 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the asteroid and 2 seconds before impact

The last complete image of asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, taken by the DRACO imager on NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission from 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the asteroid and 2 seconds before impact

NASA's DART successfully impacted the Dimorphos asteroid on Monday at 7:14pm ET. This is the first planetary defense test and it could be used to save Earth. Pictured is an image from the DART satellite just before impact

NASA’s DART successfully impacted the Dimorphos asteroid on Monday at 7:14pm ET. This is the first planetary defense test and it could be used to save Earth. Pictured is an image from the DART satellite just before impact 

Confirmation came seconds after the 7:14pm ET collision, sparking an applause among the ground team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Confirmation came seconds after the 7:14pm ET collision, sparking an applause among the ground team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The last image to contain a complete view of asteroid Didymos (top left) and its moonlet, Dimorphos, about 2.5 minutes before the impact of NASA's DART spacecraft, taken by the on board DRACO imager from a distance of 571 miles (920 kilometeres)

The last image to contain a complete view of asteroid Didymos (top left) and its moonlet, Dimorphos, about 2.5 minutes before the impact of NASA’s DART spacecraft, taken by the on board DRACO imager from a distance of 571 miles (920 kilometeres)

WHAT IS THE NASA DART MISSION? 

DART is the world’s first planetary defense test mission.

It comprises a satellite that’s crashed into the small moonlet asteroid Dimorphos, which orbits a larger companion asteroid called Didymos.

The satellite was intentionally crashed into the asteroid to slightly change the latter’s orbit.

Dimorphos is about 525 feet in diameter, and although it doesn’t pose a danger to Earth, NASA wants to measure the asteroid’s altered orbit caused by the collision. 

Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radars will measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit around Didymos, according to NASA. 

This demonstration of planetary defense will inform future missions that could one day save Earth from a deadly asteroid impact.  

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the DART team shortly after the mission was completed, highlighting how the successful test could one day save humanity.

‘We are showing that planetary defense is a global endeavor, and it is very possible to save our planet,’ Nelson said.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX also applauded NASA on the successful mission.

‘Congratulations on successfully crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid,’ the billionaire entrepreneur’s company said in its tweet. 

The US space agency’s staff cheered and clapped in a video shared online as the vending machine-sized spacecraft successfully smashed into Dimorphos, which is the size of a football stadium.

‘And we have impact. A triumph for humanity in the name of planetary defense,’ a member of NASA’s team said in a video recorded in the control room as the collision took place.

The asteroid’s bread bun shape and rocky surface finally came into clear view in the last few minutes as DART raced toward it.

‘Woo hoo,’ exclaimed Johns Hopkins mission systems engineer Elena Adams. ‘We’re seeing Dimorphos, so wonderful, wonderful.’

With an image beaming back to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland, watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger and larger in the field of view alongside its bigger companion. 

As the craft propelled itself autonomously for the mission’s final four hours like a self-guided missile, its imager started to beam down the very first pictures of Dimorphos, before slamming into its surface.

'Impact success!' NASA tweeted after the DART spacecraft collided with the 170-metre wide (560ft) asteroid, around 6.8 million miles away from Earth. SpaceX replied:'Congratulations on successfully crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid!'

‘Impact success!’ NASA tweeted after the DART spacecraft collided with the 170-metre wide (560ft) asteroid, around 6.8 million miles away from Earth. SpaceX replied: ‘Congratulations on successfully crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid!’

This astonishing image from NASA shows asteroid Dimorphos as seen by the DART spacecraft 11 seconds before impact. DART¿s on board DRACO imager captured this image from a distance of 42 miles (68 kilometers). This image was the last to contain all of Dimorphos in the field of view

This astonishing image from NASA shows asteroid Dimorphos as seen by the DART spacecraft 11 seconds before impact. DART’s on board DRACO imager captured this image from a distance of 42 miles (68 kilometers). This image was the last to contain all of Dimorphos in the field of view

The closer DART got, the more detailed the asteroid appeared and the last shot was an up-close image of the asteroid’s rocky surface – before the screen went black.

In a live question-and-answer session after the crash, senior leaders from NASA and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said the mission was ‘straight down the middle’ and nothing went wrong. 

Engineers said DART is completely destroyed, but there might be pieces of it in the crater it left during impact – and some of the team said they shed a tear knowing the craft is now gone.

Adams said the craft landed 55 feet from the targeted landing site, but still enough to assume it was a success.

‘It was basically a bullseye. I think, as far as we can tell, the first planetary defense test was a success, and we can clap to that,’ she said in a post-mission press conference. 

‘Earthlings should sleep better, and I definitely will.’  

Didymos (left corner) and Dimorphos (back, right) are currently making their closest approach to Earth in years, passing at a distance of about 6.7 million miles from our planet. The livestream showed the twin asteroids getting larger as the craft got closer

Didymos (left corner) and Dimorphos (back, right) are currently making their closest approach to Earth in years, passing at a distance of about 6.7 million miles from our planet. The livestream showed the twin asteroids getting larger as the craft got closer

A toaster-sized satellite called LICIACube, which already separated from DART a few weeks ago, made a close pass of the site to capture images of the collision and the ejecta – the pulverized rock thrown off by impact. 

DART launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last November, which was called NASA’s ‘Armageddon moment’. 

DART ‘is something of a replay of Bruce Willis’s movie, “Armageddon”, although that was totally fictional,’ Nelson said in a November interview referring the 1998 film that saw teams travel to an asteroid heading to Earth with the hopes of destroying it before impact.

Didymos and Dimorphos are currently making their closest approach to Earth in years, passing at a distance of about 6.7 million miles from our planet.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is launching a mission in 2024 that will send a probe to Dimorphos and Didymos to study the pair in greater detail. 

DIMORPHOS AND DIDYMOS 

Dimorphos completes an orbit around Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. It was discovered in 1996 by the Spacewatch survey at Kitt Peak.

The asteroid is classified as both a potentially hazardous asteroid and a near-Earth object.

Orbiting Didymos is a ‘moonlet’ called Dimorphos, which was found in 2003.

An asteroid the size of Dimorphos could cause a continent-wide destruction on Earth, while the impact of one the size of the larger Didymos would be felt worldwide.

NASA emphasized that the asteroids in question pose no threat to our home planet, but were chosen because they can be observed from ground-based telescopes here on Earth.

Andy Rivkin, of JPL’s ‘s applied physics laboratory, and Dart investigation team lead, said Monday that the two asteroids are perfect to test this planetary defense test. 

‘We needed something with a moon that was small enough that we could move it with a strike from a from a spacecraft, but not so small that we wrecked the moon,’ Rivkin continued. 

‘So when you kind of tick off all the possibilities, Didymos ended up as the best choice, and really the only choice, that would provide a mission in this time period.’

Telescopes were also watching and studying from afar, including NASA’s new $10 billion James Webb observatory, while DART will also return images to Earth at the rate of one per second as it heads towards its ‘deep impact’.

The theory is that if an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, you would only need to change its velocity by a small amount to alter its path so that it misses us, provided this was done far enough in advance.

Rome-based Virtual Telescope Project has also teamed up with several observatories in South Africa, and will be showing the target asteroid in real-time at the moment of the scheduled impact.

The change in the orbital period will be measured by telescopes on Earth. The minimum change for the mission to be considered a success is 73 seconds.

The DART technique could prove useful for altering the course of an asteroid years or decades before it bears down on Earth with the potential for catastrophe.

NASA considers any near-Earth object ‘potentially hazardous’ if it comes within 0.05 astronomical units (4.6 million miles) and measures more than 460 feet in diameter.

More than 27,000 near-Earth asteroids have been cataloged but none currently pose a danger to our planet.

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

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

Brace for impact: NASA's first ever'planetary defense' spacecraft ¿ sent to deflect an asteroid 6.8 million miles from Earth ¿ hit Monday, September 26. The graphic above shows how the mission worked

Brace for impact: NASA’s first ever ‘planetary defense’ spacecraft – sent to deflect an asteroid 6.8 million miles from Earth – hit Monday, September 26. The graphic above shows how the mission worked

DEFLECTING AN ASTEROID WOULD REQUIRE ‘MULTIPLE BUMPS’, STUDY SAYS

Deflecting an asteroid such as Bennu, which has a small chance of hitting Earth in about a century and a half, could require multiple small impacts from some sort of massive human-made deflection device, according to experts.

Scientists in California have been firing projectiles at meteorites to simulate the best methods of altering the course of an asteroid so that it wouldn’t hit Earth. 

According to the results so far, an asteroid like Bennu that is rich in carbon could need several small bumps to charge its course.

Bennu, which is about a third of a mile wide, has a slightly greater chance of hitting Earth than previously thought, NASA revealed earlier this month.

The space agency upgraded the risk of Bennu impacting Earth at some point over the next 300 years to one in 1,750.

Bennu also has a one-in-2,700 chance of hitting Earth on the afternoon of September 24, 2182, according to the NASA study.  

Scientists have been seriously considering how to stop an asteroid from ever hitting Earth since the 1960s, but previous approaches have generally involved theories on how to blow the cosmic object into thousands of pieces.

The problem with this is these pieces could potentially zoom towards Earth and present almost as dangerous and humanity-threatening an issue as the original asteroid. 

A more recent approach, called kinetic impact deflection (KID), involves firing something into space that more gently bumps the asteroid off course, away from Earth, while keeping it intact. 

Recent KID efforts were outlined at the 84th annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society held in Chicago this month and led by Dr George Flynn, a physicist at State University of New York, Plattsburgh.  

‘You might have to use multiple impacts,’ Dr Flynn said in conversation with The New York Times. ‘It [Bennu] may barely miss, but barely missing is enough.’

Researchers have been working at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range, built in the 1960s during the Apollo era and based at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, for the recent KID experiments.

They fired small, spherical aluminum projectiles at meteorites suspended by pieces of nylon string.

The team used 32 meteorites – which are fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth from space – that were mostly purchased from private dealers. 

The tests have allowed them to work out at what point momentum from a human-made object fired towards an asteroid turns it into thousands of fragments, rather than knocking it off course as desired. 

‘If you break it into pieces, some of those pieces may still be on a collision course with Earth,’ Dr Flynn said. 

Carbonaceous chondrite (C-type) asteroids, such as Bennu, are the most common in the solar system. 

They are darker than other asteroids due to the presence of carbon and are some of the most ancient objects in the solar system – dating back to its birth. 

According to the findings from experiments at AVGR, the type of asteroid being targeted (and how much carbon it has in it) may dictate how much momentum would be directed at it from any human-made KID device.   

From the experiments, the researchers found C-type meteorites could withstand only about one-sixth of the momentum that the other chondrites could withstand before shattering. 

‘[C-type] asteroids are much more difficult to deflect without disruption than ordinary chondrite asteroids,’ the experts concluded.  

‘These results indicate multiple successive impacts may be required to deflect rather than disrupt asteroids, particularly carbonaceous asteroids.’

Therefore, around 160 years in the future – when Bennu is most likely to collide with Earth, according to NASA – a KID device would have to give it a series of gentle nudges to prevent it from breaking up and sending dangerous splinter fragments flying towards Earth.

NASA’s recent study about Bennu, published in the journal Icarus, did point out there is more than a 99.9 per cent probability Bennu will not smash into Earth over the next three centuries. 

‘Although the chances of it hitting Earth are very low, Bennu remains one of the two most hazardous known asteroids in our solar system, along with another asteroid called 1950 DA,’ NASA said in a statement.     

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