Arecibo Observatory Scientists Help Solve the Mystery of the Surprise Asteroid

Arecibo Observatory Scientists Help Solve the Mystery of the Surprise Asteroid

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When asteroid 2019 OK suddenly appeared in the direction of Earth on July 25, 2019, Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin and the team at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico sprang into action.

After receiving an alert, radar operators focused on the asteroid, which came from Earth’s blind spot, the solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to get as many radar readings as possible. He traveled so fast, she would have him in Arecibo’s sights all the time. UCF operates the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a cooperative agreement.

The asteroid made headlines because it seemed to come out of nowhere and was moving fast.

Zambrano-Marin’s findings were published in the Journal of Planetary Science June 10, just weeks before the world observes Asteroid Day, which is June 30 and promotes global awareness to help educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” says Zambrano-Marin, a planetary scientist at UCF. “No one saw it until it was nearly past, so when we received the alert we had very little time to act. Even so, we were able to capture a lot of valuable information. “

It turns out the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and moving fast. It was running at 3 to 5 minutes. This means that it is only part of 4.2% of known rapidly rotating asteroids. This is a growing group that researchers say needs more attention.

The data indicate that the asteroid is likely either C-type, consisting of clay and silicate rocks, or S-type, consisting of silicate and nickel-iron. C-type asteroids are among the most common and oldest in our solar system. Type S is the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is currently inspecting data collected through the Arecibo Planetary Radar Database to continue its research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the planetary radar team can tap into the existing data bank that spans four decades. Scientific operations continue in the fields of space and atmospheric sciences, and staff are refurbishing 12-meter antennas to continue research in astronomy.

“We can take new data from other observatories and compare it to observations we’ve made here over the past 40 years,” says Zambrano-Marin. “Radar data not only helps confirm information from optical observations, but it can also help us identify physical and dynamic characteristics, which in turn could give us insight into appropriate deflection techniques if needed to protect the planet.”

According to the Center for Near Earth Studies, there are nearly 30,000 known asteroids and while few pose an immediate threat, it is possible for a sizable asteroid to hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. This is why NASA maintains close monitoring and a system to detect and characterize objects once they are found. NASA and other space agency nations have launched missions to explore near-Earth asteroids to better understand what they are made of and how they move in anticipation of having to divert a course towards Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus physics professor Humberto Campins, has returned to Earth with a sample from asteroid Bennu, which has thrown up some surprises for scientists. Bennu was first observed at Arecibo in 1999. A new mission – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission – aims to demonstrate the ability to redirect an asteroid using the kinetic energy of a projectile. The spacecraft launched in November 2021 and is expected to hit its target, the asteroid Dimorphos, on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of the Arecibo team are working to provide the scientific community with more information about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to help make contingency plans.


The largest asteroid to approach Earth in 2022 will pass our planet this week


More information:
Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin et al, Radar and optical characterization of the near-Earth asteroid 2019 OK, The Journal of Planetary Science (2022). DOI: 10.3847/PSJ/ac63cd

Provided by the University of Central Florida

Quote: Arecibo Observatory scientists help solve surprise asteroid mystery (2022, June 23) Retrieved June 24, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-arecibo-observatory- scientists-unravel-asteroid.html

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