Asteroid Orbits Shrink After Being Hit By NASA’s DART

High-resolution photograph of Dimorphos.
Dimosphos Asteroid, as captured by DART’s Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO).Credit: Nasa/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA’s endeavor to alter the trajectory of an asteroid has yielded unexpected results. Just shy of a year ago, NASA intentionally directed its Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft (DART) towards Dimorphos, an asteroid located approximately 6.8 million miles away from Earth. The mission achieved its intended outcome, but it brought about a perplexing consequence: Instead of maintaining a stable orbit, Dimorphos has experienced a reduction in its orbit around its parent asteroid.

The issue doesn’t lie in the asteroid’s reaction to the collision. NASA harnessed DART’s speed of 14,000 miles per hour to alter Dimorphos’ orbit, which previously took 11 hours and 55 minutes to circle its parent asteroid, Didymos. The impact occurred on September 26, 2022, and by October 11, NASA confirmed that it had shortened Dimorphos’ orbit by 32 minutes.

Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, remarked, “As new data come in each day, astronomers will be able to better assess whether, and how, a mission like DART could be used in the future to help protect Earth from a collision with an asteroid if we ever discover one headed our way.”

Nevertheless, according to a high school teacher and his students, DART’s impact had more profound repercussions than NASA could have foreseen. Jonathan Swift, who teaches at California’s Thatcher School, collaborated with his students to utilize the campus observatory to monitor DART’s effects. Together, they discovered that Dimorphos’ orbit was contracting: Just one month after DART’s collision with the asteroid, Dimorphos was orbiting Didymos two minutes faster than it did immediately following the impact.

“That was inconsistent at an uncomfortable level,” Swift conveyed to NewScientist.

Swift presented his students’ findings to the American Astronomical Society during the summer. While he had initially hoped the results were inaccurate, they remained consistent, prompting astronomers to investigate why Dimorphos is exhibiting such unexpected behavior. One hypothesis suggests that the asteroid is now undergoing “chaotic” tumbling after losing its previous tidal lock that maintained a stable orbit.

The forthcoming European Space Agency (ESA) mission, Hera, is poised to provide further insights into Dimorphos’ movements in October. Hera will not only conduct an up-close examination of the crater created by DART’s impact but will also gather more precise data on the mass and composition of both Dimorphos and Didymos. This will enable astronomers to gain a better understanding of the behavior of these two asteroids in space.

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