The white cloud of rocks and dust that rises from the asteroid hit by the projectile in the form of a probe is proof of the success of two missions. That of Dart, the NASA test, which hit Dimorphos, a small celestial body, to try to bend its trajectory. The other is that of Liciacube, a tiny satellite made in Italy, chosen to observe everything and send these images to Earth, snapshots of a historical moment: the first planetary defense test ever conducted by man.
To reveal the first photos sent by Liciacube, after the live broadcast last night, were, together, Argotec and the Italian Space Agency. Respectively the manufacturer and the client through for NASA. Liciacube is the size of a microwave oven, detached from Dart a couple of weeks earlier impact and positioned itself on a ‘safe’ trajectory, to pass some 50 kilometers above the point where the American ‘big sister’ landed on the surface of Dimorphos. She is close enough to take high-resolution images, but far enough away not to be hit by the debris ejected from the collision.
“You can try anything on the ground, but when you go into space it is always the first time – said David Avino, CEO of Argotec – yesterday at 4:23 we opened the first image, it was exciting, we saw those two dots taken from 1,000 kilometers away, and we knew we were on the right course, we had made it. It was not taken for granted. Liciacube took about 620 images, the same number we expected ”.
From his vantage point, Liciacube saw the explosion of debris that reflected the sunlight silhouetted against the dark sky. In the foreground Didymos, l’asteroide principalebehind, the luminous flash that envelops Dimorphos, an eruption of matter projected by the impact of the lead spacecraft at 6.6 kilometers per second, over 23,000 kilometers per hour. According to Elisabetta Dotto, Science team lead of the National Institute of Astrophysics, it is precious material: “Very promising, it already looks like a great scientific work”.
For Italy it is a historic mission, the first all-colored in deep space, as the president of ASI recalled, Giorgio Saccoccia. Argotec, a Turin-based company, has been selected to assist NASA thanks to the great innovation of its systems. Her probes, Liciacube in the first place, but also Argomoon, the ‘cousin’ who will fly in the first mission of the Artemis program, have an autonomous navigation system that allows them to recognize the target in their field of vision, and set the course by themselves. Dart also had an Italian ‘compass’. Leonardo has in fact provided NASA with the attitude sensor that helped guide the probe towards the impact against the asteroid with great precision. A device capable of “pointing” a coin from one euro to 2.5 kilometers away.
To underline the success of Liciacube Thomas Zurbuchen was the first, in charge of NASA’s scientific missions, connected from the United States. “Tonight Dart was the first human mission to divert the path of a celestial body and Liciacube is the first Italian deep-space mission to carry out operations in complete autonomy. Few nations in the world are capable of it ”. Using artificial intelligence to orient a cubesat is a new technology, but with a great future: “I remember that when it was proposed, some colleagues told me that it was almost impossible for it to be successful. Instead, I am proud of our Italian colleagues. This ability it will have applications for planetary science but also around the Earth ”concluded Zurbuchen. “There is an entire program dedicated to these satellites – continued Saccoccia – great ideas that arise from small businesses and which, as in the case of Argotec, can contribute to missions with large partners”.
In the next few days, other important images will arrive from Liciacube to learn more about the details of the clash. Scientists want to know how much material was expelled, that says so much about the composition and ‘hardness’ of Dimorphos, which from the latest images seems to be a mass of crushed stone, dust and pebbles held together by a very weak gravitational attraction. Important data to establish how much the mass of a ‘space projectile’ such as Dart is able to deflect a celestial body with these characteristics.
While to know how much Dart, great how a small car for half a ton of weight, has managed to divert the path of Dimorphos (160 meters in diameter). Ground-based telescopes now take time in Dimorphos, measuring how accelerated her orbit around her older brother has accelerated.