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‘Incredible’: Astronomers greet first images of asteroid impact

The asteroid is flying through space in the grainy black-and-white video, when a huge cloud of debris suddenly spouts in front of it, meaning only one thing: impact.

Astronomers have praised these early images of the first time humanity deliberately slammed a spacecraft into an asteroid, saying it appears to have done “a lot of damage.”

That would be good news, as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) impactor hit the asteroid Dimorphos Monday night at 23,500 kilometers (14,500 miles) per hour with the aim of deflecting its orbit.

While Dimorphos is 11 million kilometers (6.8 million miles) away and poses no threat to Earth, it is being used as a historic test run so the world can be ready to defend itself if a future asteroid heads toward Earth. .

Following the impact, ground-based telescopes and the toaster-sized LICIACube satellite, which separated from DART a few weeks ago, revealed the first images of the collision.

“On the LICIACube images, the plume of what came off the surface was quite impressive,” Antonella Barucci of the LESIA laboratory at the Paris Observatory told AFP.

By examining the plume, “we can begin to estimate the density of the material on its surface,” she said.

– ‘Very, very big’ plume –

The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) project tweeted a nine-second video of the impact of its telescope in South Africa on Tuesday.

Larry Denneau, the co-principal investigator of ATLAS, said the telescope took one shot every 40 seconds.

“So the whole sequence you’ve seen on Twitter is about two hours in real time,” he told AFP.

He said the “very, very large” plume was created by dust blasting off the asteroid.

“A lot of the dust is released at a speed greater than the asteroid’s gravity, and so it escapes,” Denneau said.

The plume expanded to about “several thousand miles in diameter,” he added.

In the coming days and weeks, astronomers around the world will work to confirm whether the asteroid’s orbit has been definitively altered by the impact.

Then the European Space Agency’s Hera mission will arrive in Dimorphos in 2026 to survey the surface and discover the magnitude of DART’s impact.

The Hera mission’s principal investigator, Patrick Michel, said “we are all impressed by the magnitude of the event”.

“We did a lot of damage to Dimorphos,” Michel said.

“We have an amount of ejected matter that is quite unbelievable.”

The amount of matter ripped off the asteroid will help scientists figure out exactly how much its orbit was affected — if at all.

“The more material that is ejected, the more it deviates,” said Eric Lagadec, president of the French Astronomical Society.

“So it’s a pretty good sign,” he added.

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