They’re raw and a bit grainy, but the first batch of LICIACube images have arrived, showing the immediate effects of the DART spacecraft crashing into Dimorphos.
The 31-pound (14-kilogram) LICIACube (pronounced LEE-cha-cube) was trailing behind DART at the time of impact, having been launched from the NASA spacecraft two weeks ago. The probe has two optical cameras, LUKE and LEIA, and it was designed to observe the impact from afar. The main objectives of the mission, managed by the Italian Space Agency, were to observe the rising plume, capture images of a potential impact crater and observe the opposite side of the moon.
LICIACube, short for Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging Asteroids, is beaming hundreds of images back to Earth, each requiring processing and analysis. The first set of images have been released, revealing startling details of the celestial encounter. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, slammed into Dimorphos, a small moon orbiting the larger asteroid Didymos, at 7:14 p.m. ET Monday, in a first major test of a planetary defense strategy. None of the objects pose a threat to Earth.
Italian aerospace company Argotec designed and built LICIACube, with input from the National Institute of Astrophysics and the universities of Bologna and Milan. For the encounter, the probe did not approach within 34 miles (55 kilometers) of the target asteroid. Images from the impact show two objects in frame, the 520-foot-wide (160-meter) moon and the 2,650-foot-wide (780-meter) Didymos. The two objects are about 0.75 miles (1.2 km) apart, while the system itself is 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.
Magnified views of Dimorphos reveal intricate strands of debris kicked up by the impact. It’s fair to say that planetary scientists will want to study this phenomenon in detail, as it likely speaks to the effect of kinetic impactors on rubble-pile asteroids – if that’s what Dimorphos really is. Rubblepile asteroids, as their name suggests, are asteroids with loose conglomerates of surface material, as opposed to asteroids with very compact surfaces.
The nature of the scattering impact plume will inform estimates about the object’s structure and surface material, while observations from the unimpacted side will refine estimates about the dimensions and volume of the moon. Scientists will then use this information to improve their impact simulation models. Data collected by ground-based and space-based telescopes will also be used for this analysis.
We are now in the science phase of the DART mission, as researchers work to understand the spacecraft’s effect on the asteroid, both in terms of surface changes and the degree to which it alters its orbit around it. of Didymos, if any. These analyzes could provide us with a future means of repelling a threatening asteroid.
After: Ground-based telescopes capture jaw-dropping views of DART asteroid impact.