What Became of the Boulders Propelled into Space by DART?

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, a $325 million project launched in November 2021, was designed to evaluate the possibility of altering the path of an asteroid. The mission, which involved crashing DART into the asteroid Dimorphos, was successful in changing the asteroid’s orbit. Dimorphos and its host asteroid, Didymos, form a binary asteroid system, which provided the ideal setting for testing this technology despite posing no threat to Earth.

Upon impact, DART created a large debris field composed of particles ranging from microns to meters in size. This debris was observed by the Les Makes Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, revealing dust-sized particles to meteor and boulder-sized objects. The CubeSat LICIACube was released from DART just before the impact to provide long-term monitoring of the debris field.

The debris from the impact formed a cone-shaped structure with a tail, similar to a comet tail, which was pushed away from the asteroid system by solar radiation pressure. Ground-based imagery was used to establish the mass and velocity of the ejected particles. Through analysis and modeling of the ejecta, it was estimated that around 3% of all ejected boulders would remain in orbit for at least 83 days.

An area of concern is the long-term fate of the larger boulder-sized ejecta. Simulations showed a gradual reduction in the number of boulders bound to the asteroid system over 800 and 1550 days following the impact, primarily due to collisions with Didymos and Dimorphos themselves. However, there was no indication in any of the simulations that any of the ejecta would escape the double asteroid system.

To further understand the results, a follow-up study is needed. The Hera mission, an initiative by the European Space Agency, is scheduled to visit Didymos and Dimorphos five years after the DART impact to evaluate the changes in Dimorphos’s orbit. The results of this mission will provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of the DART mission and the feasibility of using such methods for asteroid deflection in the future.

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