DART impact gave asteroid Dimorphos a debris tail thousands of miles long (stunning photo)

 A new stunning image shows that two days after NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft slammed into the asteroid Dimorphos, the space rock had grown a tail of glowing debris extending thousands of miles. 

The comet-like tail is made of dust and debris was blasted from the surface of Dimorphos, part of a double asteroid system, by the intentional impact of DART, the first mission designed to test whether such a collision could divert a hypothetical asteroid threatening to hit Earth. Dimorphos' new tail was imaged by astronomers Teddy Kareta from the Lowell Observatory and Matthew Knight from the U.S. Naval Academy using the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope, at the National Science Foundation-funded NOIRLab's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

"It is amazing how clearly we were able to capture the structure and extent of the aftermath in the days following the impact," Kareta said in a statement(opens in new tab).

Observing the ejected material could allow scientists to better determine the nature of the surface of Dimorphos by revealing just how much material the collision with DART ejected, the speed at which the material was launched and the size of the ejected particles. This knowledge could ultimately help space agencies like NASA protect Earth from asteroid impacts because a better understanding of asteroid structure and composition helps scientists model how best to divert them. 

The material in the dust trail was initially ejected on Sept. 26 when DART hit Dimorphos, forming a cloud around the asteroid. The tail-like structure formed when radiation pressure from the sun pushed the debris away from the body of the asteroid, just as happens with the tails of comets as they approach the sun from the distant reaches of the solar system.

SOAR will continue to observe the aftermath of the DART impact, collecting data that will help researchers assess how successful this attempt to modify the orbit of an asteroid has been.