On Monday, the world watched as a small NASA spacecraft called DART met its explosive fate. This box, slightly larger than an oven and winged with solar panels, was doomed to die since it left Earth in November.
The mission of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test was simple: crash into a large asteroid so scientists can see if that impact pushes the space rock in the slightest. If so, a future asteroid on a collision course with Earth might be averted with a similar spacecraft suicide mechanism — a way to save humanity and avenge the dinosaurs.
Right up to the end, en route to the targeted asteroid Dimorphos, DART dutifully took pictures of the impending doom. Then came the interrupted last words. The probe was only able to broadcast a swath of its soon-to-be rocky resting place because the rest of the image failed to load before it completely faltered. Silence.
But just 15 days before the impact, DART deployed a small satellite to capture the horrific details of the end-of-life and asteroid grave from a bird’s eye view.
On Tuesday, this satellite – called LICIACube for the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids – released its first images.
Prior to impact, the LICIACube drifted a safe distance from the impact site, waiting for the DART to die. Then it flew past the site as soon as things settled down a bit, about three minutes after the crash, and used its dual camera system to take pictures of the evidence.
In these images, you can see streams of flowing debris surrounding Dimorphos, emanating from DART’s 14,000 mph plunge into the asteroid’s surface. LICIACube also captured a view of the far side of the asteroid during a short flight and some more evocative photos of the rock’s proximity. When the satellite’s science team first saw these portraits come in, the room erupted into cheers.
“Our intrepid little reporter,” Andrew Cheng, DART principal investigator and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory called LICIACube, said in a statement. “What it will see and document will provide us with unique and important information that we would not otherwise get to see.”
Next, the DART team plans to examine these images with extreme precision to see what crucial crash information LICIACube managed to collect. “Now the science can begin,” Katarina Miljkovic of Australia’s Curtin University said in a statement. “This is to ensure that, if Earth ever encounters a dangerous asteroid swinging toward us, we know what to do.”
In a few years, the European Space Agency also plans to send its own DART detective satellite, called HERA, to accompany LICIACube on the quest to decipher the dusty aftermath of the impact.
It will be a few months before scientists reveal some answers as to whether DART worked — in other words, did it actually alter Dimorphos’ orbit? — but along the way we can probably look forward to an exciting influx of sightings around the world. Everywhere, telescopes on the ground were pointed directly at the show.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, for example, peered from its station about a million miles from Earth, and the Hubble Space Telescope tried to capture some raw images while in our planet’s orbit. Astronomers with the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome have already started releasing some telescope data from the drama, and those working at the Les Makes Observatory in the Indian Ocean also shared some of the juicy details.