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NASA asteroid crash left a comet-like trail 6,000 miles long

As we await news on whether NASA has been successful in changing the course of an asteroid by crashing a spacecraft into it, it’s emerged that the collision caused a huge debris trail around 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) long.

The trail from the Dimorphos asteroid after NASA deliberately crashed a spacecraft into it.
CTIO/NOIRLab/SOAR/NSF/AURA/T. Kareta (Lowell Observatory), M. Knight (US Naval Academy)

A remarkable image captured by the SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) telescope in Chile two days after the September 26 impact shows the trail from the Dimorphos asteroid as a white streak blazing through the blackness of space millions of miles from Earth.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft intentionally slammed into Dimorphos — the harmless asteroid moonlet in the double-asteroid system of Didymos — as part of a planetary defense mission aimed at testing technology to protect Earth from hazardous asteroids in the future.

The dust trail is made up of ejecta that has been pushed away by the sun’s radiation pressure and is similar to the tail of a comet.

One of those who used SOAR to capture the image, astronomer Teddy Kareta, commented: “It’s amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact.”

Another astronomer involved in the capture, Matthew Knight, said: “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,” adding that the plan is to use SOAR to monitor the ejecta in the coming weeks and months.

Data from the observations will help scientists to learn about the surface of the Dimorphos asteroid, how much material was kicked up by the crash, the speed at which it was ejected, and whether the force of the collision resulted in the release of large chunks of material or mainly fine dust.

“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 an asteroid’s orbit,” said NOIRLab, which operates the SOAR telescope.

It’s hoped that in the coming days or weeks the DART team will be able to offer some indication on whether the test changed the trajectory of the Dimorphos asteroid, though it’s likely to be a while before firm conclusions can be shared.

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Trevor Mogg
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