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Monday September 26 was a historic moment for NASA and the whole world with the first deviation of an asteroid in the perspective of global planetary defense, through the DART mission. All the telescopes were then focused on this point in the sky, and were able to record the impact live, like the ATLAS project. As NASA experts had assumed, the video shows a wave of debris rising after the impact. DART’s companion camera also captured the collision, allowing the consequences to be characterized in the days to come.
On Sept. 26 at NASA, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) team, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, along with guests from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, were all rejoiced upon receiving confirmation of DART’s collision with the asteroid Dimorphos, the world’s first demonstration of planetary defense technology.
During the spacecraft’s final moments, before impact, its reconnaissance camera and optical navigation imager took four images capturing its terminal approach, as Dimorphos increasingly filled the field of view.
Currently, the team is observing Dimorphos using ground-based telescopes to confirm that the DART impact has altered the asteroid’s orbit around Didymos. The researchers expect the impact to shorten Dimorphos’ orbit by about 1%, or about 10 minutes.
That’s how astronomers at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy (IfA) captured this moment of historic impact on Monday, September 26, thanks to the ATLAS project. Not to mention that the camera, deployed by the spacecraft a few days before its impact, LICIACub of the Italian space agency, was also able to immortalize this moment.
An even more effective asteroid impact early warning system
The joint Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) project between NASA and the University of Hawaii is a ground-based asteroid impact early warning system telescope. It consists of a system of four telescopes located, in the northern hemisphere, at the summit of Haleakalā and Maunaloa and, in the southern hemisphere, in South Africa and Chile.
Moreover, the ATLAS telescope in South Africa has compiled images of the impact, available on Twitter. Larry Denneau, IfA astronomer, co-principal investigator of ATLAS, explains in a communicated : “ The ATLAS Telescope System was well placed to observe the impact from Earth, and we were fortunate to have excellent weather conditions at the ATLAS Telescope in Sutherland, South Africa “.
It should be noted that the ATLAS system can provide a warning one day before impact for an asteroid 20 meters in diameter, capable of destruction on the scale of a city. Since larger asteroids can be detected farther away, ATLAS can provide up to three weeks of warning for a 100-meter asteroid capable of regional devastation. But it can only prevent… It is therefore essential to supplement it with the implementation of real actions, such as the DART mission here.
ATLAS observations of the DART spacecraft impact at Didymos! pic.twitter.com/26IKwB9VSo
— ATLAS Project (@fallingstarIfA) September 27, 2022
John Tonry, IfA professor and principal investigator of ATLAS, explains that according to the latest data the impact of the spacecraft was ” strong enough to reduce its 12-hour orbital period by about 5 minutes. Therefore, the eclipses that we can observe from Earth will happen earlier and earlier, and after a week or two we will have a very good measure of how much Dimorphos recoils after being hit by DART “.
As a result, the data collected by all observing systems will make it possible to plan a potential mission to divert a dangerous asteroid, knowing: ” what time it should be hit, what the mass of the spacecraft should be, how fast it should move “.
Additional observations from Hawaii
Other images of the impact were captured atop Mauna Kea by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (optical/infrared). Mauna Kea is a 4200 meter dormant volcano located on the island of Hawaii, host to Mauna Kea’s 12 observatories. The CFH Telescope became operational in 1979. The mission of the CFHT is to provide the user community with a state-of-the-art, versatile astronomical observing facility.
That’s why IfA astronomer Richard Wainscoat and University of Western Ontario astronomer Robert Weryk obtained images of the dust plume about 13 hours after the DART spacecraft impacted Dimorphos. Weryk says: The extent and structure of the dust plume surprised me. I expected it to be on a much smaller scale “.
Over the next two months, IfA astronomers will work with students to study the orbit of Dimorphos using the UH 88 telescope on Mauna Kea and the Faulkes North telescope on Haleakalā, which is one of many observatories that are part of the Las Cumbres telescope network.
Indeed, this network of Las Cumbres is a global distribution of telescopes, relying on an artificial intelligence called “the planner”. Working without human intervention, OCH’s intranet-based scheduler takes observation requests from scientists, analyzes everything from requests and competing conditions at each telescope site, directs individual telescopes to make desired observations, and compiles results. Scientists can make observation requests at any time, as the planner updates the entire network plan approximately every 5 minutes.
Unprecedented space observations
Additionally, new images captured by the DART spacecraft’s companion satellite, LICIACube (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids) provided by the Italian Space Agency, reveal the impact from another angle, that of space.
He deployed from the craft on 9/11 and traveled behind it to record the event from a safe distance of approximately 55 kilometers. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat flew over Dimorphos to capture images. The series of images show shiny material released from the surface of Dimorphos after the collision. Didymos is in the foreground.
In conclusion, NASA’s DART mission has confirmed that the space agency can successfully direct a spacecraft to intentionally collide with an asteroid and deflect it from its current path. Future planetary defense strategies will be able to rely on an efficient network of telescopes to alert and enable the launch of such a deflection mission. As a NASA presenter said on the agency’s live stream, we can conclude: Humanity one, asteroid zero “.
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Seen from Earth, the collision of the DART spacecraft with the asteroid Dimorphos is breathtaking (VIDEO)
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