“Railroad cars” are launched after a NASA spacecraft collides with an asteroid | CNN

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When NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft smashed into the small asteroid Dimorphos, the impact certainly left a mark.

The deliberate collision, which occurred on Sept. 26 as a test of the asteroid deflection technique, dislodged more than two million pounds (one million kilograms) of rock and dust from the asteroid into space. Scientists estimate that the material was enough to fill about six or seven railroad cars.

The insights gained from the collision are helping scientists learn how to use this planetary defense technology in the future. That is if an asteroid is ever detected to be on a collision course with Earth.

Neither Dimorphos, nor the larger asteroid Didymus orbiting it, poses a threat to Earth, but the system made for excellent aiming practice.

New results and images from the impact were shared Thursday at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in Chicago.

“What we can learn from the DART mission is part of NASA’s overall work to understand asteroids and other small bodies in our solar system,” said Tom Statler, NASA’s DART program scientist, in a statement.

“The asteroid collision was just the beginning. Now we use the observations to study what these objects are made of and how they were formed – as well as how to defend our planet in case an asteroid comes our way.”

Pictures taken by space and ground-based telescopes before and after the impact help scientists piece together what happened when the spacecraft crashed into Dimorphos at 14,000 mph (22,530 kph).

The DART team calculated that the transfer of momentum when the spacecraft hit the asteroid was 3.6 times greater than if the asteroid had sucked the spacecraft and no material had erupted from the surface. The researchers said that the momentum created when Dimorphos’ surface material blasted into space contributed to moving the asteroid more than the spacecraft did.

“Momentum transfer is one of the most important things we can measure, because it’s information we need to develop a collider mission to deflect a threatened asteroid,” said Andy Cheng, lead of the DART investigation team from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. Maryland, in a statement.

“Understanding how the spacecraft’s impact will change the asteroid’s momentum is key to designing a mitigation strategy for the planetary defense scenario.”

Italy's CubeSat LICIACube captured these images about 3 minutes after DART impacted Dimorphos.

The DART mission succeeded in changing the trajectory of the asteroid Dimorphos, marking the first time humanity has intentionally altered the motion of a celestial body in space.

Before impact, it took Dimorphos 11 hours and 55 minutes to circle Didymus. Now, it takes Dimorphos 11 hours and 23 minutes to orbit Didymos. The DART spacecraft changed the orbit of the small lunar asteroid by 32 minutes.

Initially, astronomers expected DART to be successful if the trajectory was shortened by 10 minutes.

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