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Arecibo observatory scientists help unravel surprise asteroid mystery


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

After receiving a warning, the radar scientists sang in to the asteroid, which emerged from Earth’s blind spot — opposition from the sun. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to take as many radar readings as possible. It traveled so fast, that’s all the time she would have it in Arecibo’s sights. UCF operates the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a partnership agreement.

The asteroid made headlines because it appeared to come out of nowhere and was traveling fast.

Zambrano-Marin’s findings were published in the Planetary Science Magazine June 10, just a few weeks before the world observes Asteroid Day, which is June 30, is raising global awareness to educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” said Zambrano-Marin, a UCF planetary scientist. “No one saw it until it practically passed by, so when we got the alert we had very little time to act. Still, we were able to capture a lot of valuable information.”

It turned out that the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and was moving quickly. It ran at 3 to 5 minutes. That means it’s part of just 4.2 percent of known fast-rotating asteroids. This is a growing group that, according to the researchers, needs more attention.

The data indicates that the asteroid is likely a C-type, which is made up of clay and silicate rocks, or S-type, which is made up of silicate and nickel iron. C-type asteroids are among the most abundant and some of the oldest in our solar system. S-type are the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is now inspecting the data collected through Arecibo’s Planetary Radar database to continue her research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team can leverage the existing database spanning four decades. Science operations continue in the space and atmospheric sciences, and staff are refurbishing 12-meter antennas to continue astronomical research.

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

Nearly 30,000 asteroids are known according to Center for Near Earth Studies and while few pose an immediate threat, there’s a chance one of significant size could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. Therefore, NASA closely monitors and system to detect and characterize objects once they are found. NASA and other nations of space agencies 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 reroute one way to Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus Professor of Physics Humberto Campins, will return to Earth with a sample from asteroid Bennu, leaving scientists with a few surprises. Bennu was first sighted in Arecibo in 1999. A new mission – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission— aims to demonstrate the ability to reroute an asteroid using the kinetic energy of a projectile. The spacecraft was launched in November 2021 and is expected to reach its target – the Dimorphos asteroid – on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of Arecibo’s team are working to educate the scientific community about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to come up with emergency plans.

The largest asteroid approaching Earth in 2022 is zooming past our planet this week

More information:
Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin et al, Radar and Optical Characterization of Near-Earth Asteroid 2019 OK, The Planetary Science Magazine (2022). DOI: 10.3847/PSJ/ac63cd

Provided by University of Central Florida

Quote: Arecibo observatory scientists help unravel the mystery of the asteroid (2022, June 23) retrieved June 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-arecibo-observatory-scientists-unravel-asteroid. html

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