Dimorphos Asteroid Disturbed by DART Collision in 2022, Is it Dangerous?

Dimorphos Asteroid
NASA Illustration. (Doc: Andreas H./Pixabay)
NASA's efforts to adjust the orbit of an asteroid in September 2022 have led to unexpected consequences. The space agency intentionally crashed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft into Dimorphos.

As reported by Extreme Tech on Monday (September 11, 2023), Dimorphos is an asteroid located about 6.8 million miles from Earth.

The operation was a success, but it resulted in something perplexing. Instead of maintaining its orbit, Dimorphos's path around its parent asteroid shrank.

Normally, NASA impacts asteroids with the aim of altering their trajectory or orbital speed. However, this time, NASA used the momentum of DART, traveling at 14,000 miles per hour, to change the asteroid's orbit.

DART collided with the Dimorphos asteroid, with an impact duration of 11 hours and 55 minutes, on September 26, 2022. Then, on October 11, 2022, NASA confirmed that it had shortened its orbit by 32 minutes.

Lori Glaze, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, stated, "With new data coming in daily, astronomers will be better equipped to assess whether and how missions like DART can be used in the future to help protect Earth from asteroid collisions if we discover an asteroid heading our way."

However, recently, a high school teacher and his students discovered that the impact of DART was more significant than NASA had estimated. Jonathan Swift, a teacher at Thatcher School in California, found that Dimorphos's orbit had shrunk.

A month after the DART collision with the asteroid, Dimorphos orbited Didymos two minutes faster than immediately after the impact. Swift shared this finding with the American Astronomical Society this summer.

Now, astronomers are trying to figure out why Dimorphos behaved so unexpectedly. One explanation suggests that the asteroid is now spinning chaotically after losing the tidal key that kept its orbit stable.

Scientists Continue to Analyze the Impact of DART on this Asteroid

According to Phys.org, about a month after measuring the initial orbit, a group of researchers re-measured the orbit of the asteroid Dimorphos. They found that the asteroid's orbit had increased from 33 minutes to 34 minutes.

Although this is a single effect of DART, there is a force that continues to slow the asteroid's orbit, and astronomers have not yet determined what mechanism might be at play.

DART, weighing 610 kg (1,340 lb), collided with Dimorphos at a speed of about 22,530 km/h (14,000 mph). This collision created a crater on the surface of Dimorphos that ejected more than 900,000 kg (990 US tons) of debris into space. Furthermore, it also caused Dimorphos to change the orbit of its parent asteroid, Didymos.

Scientists estimate that the impact of DART moved more than one million kilograms (two million pounds) of dusty rocks into space.

The DART science team continues to analyze their data, as well as new information about the moon's composition and ejecta characteristics, to learn the extent of DART's initial impact that shifted the asteroid and its subsequent impact.

Thacher Observatory Investigates Dimorphos' Changes

Dimorphos' Changes
An illustration of a potentially hazardous asteroid approaching Earth. (Credit: ESA)
As reported by the same source, another group of researchers, led by Taylor Gudebski and Elisabeth Heldridge, observed the impact of this collision.

They used a 0.7m telescope at the Thacher Observatory located on the campus of The Thacher School in Ventura County, California. They measured post-impact changes in the period of observation about 20-30 days after the initial data.

The results showed that the system's period may have been shortened during this short time.

In a study released in March 2023, astronomers tracked the evolution of the debris cloud from the collision over a month.

They found that as the debris expanded outward, structures began to form, such as clumps, spirals, and long tails driven by solar radiation.

However, the Gudebski and Heldridge team did not believe that the debris would cause the changes they observed.

Before the DART collision, researchers were already aware that Dimorphos's period was changing gradually. However, they couldn't explain the difference because the change was very small.

DART Launched in 2021

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.(Credit:US Air Force)
The DART spacecraft was launched on November 24, 2021, and spent 10 months traveling to its asteroid target.

Previously, this spacecraft mission was launched to test technology that could one day redirect hazardous asteroids from their path.

NASA's DART mission aimed to assess how difficult it is to divert a large space rock from colliding with Earth. The spacecraft was specifically planned to collide with an object called Dimorphos to see how much its speed and trajectory could be altered.

If a cosmic rock several hundred meters in size were to collide with our planet, it could cause destruction across continents, as reported by the BBC.

The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the DART spacecraft was launched at 06:20 California time on Wednesday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

This marks the first attempt to redirect an asteroid with the goal of learning how to protect Earth, even though this particular asteroid posed no threat.

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