Webb and Hubble telescopes capture DART impact, first planetary defense mission

Two of NASA’s Great Observatories, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, captured images of the world’s first planetary defense experimentthe so-called DART mission, carried out on September 26.

The test, which consisted of intentionally crash a spaceship into a small asteroid to divert its course, concluded successfully.

These Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) observations mark the first time Webb and Hubble have simultaneously observed the same celestial target.

On September 26, 2022, at 7:14 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, DART intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the small moon of asteroid eng, the Didymos double asteroid system.

It was the world’s first test of kinetic impact mitigation, using spacecraft to deflect an asteroid that poses no threat to Earth and modifying the orbit of the object. DART is a test to defend the Earth against possible dangers from asteroids or comets.

The coordinated Hubble and Webb observations they are more than an operational milestone for each telescope: There are also key scientific questions related to the composition and history of our solar system that researchers can explore by combining the capabilities of these observatories.

“Webb and Hubble show what we have always known at NASA: we learn more when we work together,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “For the first time, Webb and Hubble simultaneously captured images of the same target in the cosmos: an asteroid that was hit by a spacecraft after a seven-million-mile journey. All of humanity eagerly awaits the discoveries to come from Webb, Hubble and our ground-based telescopes, on the DART mission and beyond.”

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Webb and Hubble observations together will allow scientists to gain insight into the nature of Dimorphos’s surface, how much material was ejected by the collision and how fast it was ejected.

Additionally, Webb and Hubble captured the impact in different wavelengths of light: Webb in infrared and Hubble in visible. Observing the impact over a wide range of wavelengths will reveal the distribution of particle sizes in the expanding dust cloud, helping to determine whether it ejected many large chunks or mostly fine dust.

Combining this information, along with observations from ground-based telescopes, will help scientists understand the effectiveness with which a kinetic impact can modify the orbit of an asteroid.

Webb captures the impact site before and after the collision

Webb took an observation of the impact location before the collision occurred, then various observations over the next few hours. Images from Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) show a tight, compact core, with plumes of material appearing as wisps moving away from the impact center.

Observing the impact with Webb presented the flight operations, planning and science teams with unique challenges, due to the speed of travel of the asteroid through the sky. As DART neared its target, teams did additional work in the weeks leading up to impact to enable and test a method of tracking asteroids moving three times faster than Webb’s original speed limit.

“I have nothing but tremendous admiration for the people at Webb Mission Operations that made this happen,” said lead researcher Cristina Thomas of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. “We have been planning these observations for years, then in detail for weeks, and I am tremendously happy that this has come to fruition.”

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Scientists also plan to observe the asteroid system in the coming months using Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). The spectroscopic data will provide researchers information about the chemical composition of the asteroid.

Webb observed the impact for a total of five hours and captured 10 images. The data was collected as part of the Webb 1245 Cycle 1 Guaranteed Time Observing Program, led by Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

Hubble images show ejecta motion after impact

Hubble also captured pre-impact observations of the binary system, then again 15 minutes after DART hit Dimorphos’s surface. Images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 show the impact in visible light. The ejecta from the impact appear as rays extending from the body of the asteroid. The bolder and more widespread ejection peak to the left of the asteroid is in the general direction from which DART approached.

Some of the rays appear to be slightly curved, but astronomers need to take a closer look to determine what this might mean. In the Hubble images, astronomers estimate that the system’s brightness increased threefold after the impact, and they saw that the brightness remained stable, even eight hours later.

Hubble plans to monitor the Didymos-Dimorphos system 10 times more for the next three weeks. These periodic, relatively long-term observations as the ejecta cloud expands and fades over time will paint a more complete picture of the cloud’s expansion from ejection to disappearance.

“When I saw the data, I was literally speechless, stunned by the incredible detail of the ejection that Hubble captured,” said Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who led the Hubble observations. “I feel lucky to witness this moment and be part of the team that made this happen.”

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Hubble captured 45 images in time immediately before and after the DART impact with Dimorphos. The Hubble data was collected as part of the 16674 Cycle 29 General Observer Program.

“This is an unprecedented view of an unprecedented event,” summed up Andy Rivkin, leader of the DART research team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

(With information from NASA)


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