On Monday, the world watched as a little NASA spacecraft called DART met its explosive fate. This box, slightly bigger than an oven and winged with solar panels, had been fated to die since it left Earth in November.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test’s mission was simple: Crash into a large asteroid so scientists can see whether that impact nudges the space rock ever so slightly. If so, perhaps a future asteroid on a collision course with Earth can be staved off with a similar spacecraft suicide mechanism — a way to save humanity and avenge the dinosaurs.
Until the very end, on its way to the targeted asteroid Dimorphos, DART dutifully took images of its impending doom. Then came its interrupted last words. The probe could only transmit a strip of its soon-to-be rocky resting place because the rest of the image couldn’t load before it completely faltered. Silence.
But exactly 15 days prior to impact, DART deployed a small satellite to capture, from a bird’s-eye view, its gruesome end-of-life details and its asteroid grave.
On Tuesday, this satellite — named LICIACube for the Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids — released its first images.
Prior to impact, LICIACube floated at a safe distance from the impact site, waiting for DART to simply die. Then it flew past the site once things settled a bit, about three minutes post-crash, and used its dual camera system to snap pics of the evidence.
In these images, you can see streams of flowing debris surrounding Dimorphos, stemming from DART’s 14,000-mph plunge into the asteroid’s surface. LICIACube also imaged the far side of the asteroid during a brief flyby and a couple more evocative photos of the rock’s vicinity. When the satellite’s science team first saw these portraits come in, the room erupted in cheers.
“Our intrepid little reporter,” Andrew Cheng, lead investigator of DART and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory called LICIACube, in a statement. “What it will witness and document will provide us with unique and important information that we otherwise wouldn’t get to see.”
Next up, the DART team plans on investigating these images with immense precision to see what kinds of crucial crash information LICIACube managed to glean. “Now the science can start,” Katarina Miljkovic of Curtin University in Australia, said in a statement. “This is to ensure that, should Earth ever encounter a dangerous asteroid hurling towards us, we would know what to do.”
In a few years, the European Space Agency also intends to send its own DART detective satellite, dubbed HERA, to accompany LICIACube on the quest to decode the impact’s dusty aftermath.
It will take a couple of months before scientists unveil some answers on whether DART worked — in other words, did it actually adjust Dimorphos’ trajectory? — but along the way, we can probably look forward to an exciting influx of observations being made worldwide. Ground-based telescopes everywhere were pointed directly at the show.
DART’s interrupted last words.
Screenshot by CNET/NASA
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, for instance, peered over from its station about a million miles from Earth, and the Hubble Space Telescope attempted to catch some raw footage while in our planet’s orbit. Astronomers with the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome have already started releasing some telescope data of the drama and those working at the Les Makes observatory in the Indian Ocean also shared some of the juicy details.