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Dionysus or, to be more exact, 3671 Dionysus is a near-earth asteroid that can be found in the region between Earth and Mars. Identified as a small Amor asteroid, Dionysus was first spotted by Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker at the Palomar Observatory back in May 27, 1984.
Amor asteroids are asteroids that belong to a group named after the asteroid 1221 Amor. 1221 Amor is known in astronomy circles as the first ever asteroid to have been observed to stray so close to Earth. Both 1221 Amor and 3671 Dionysus are estimated to be 1.5 km wide.
While Amor asteroids do approach Earth’s orbit, they don’t cross it. That should make you breathe easier for now. This group of asteroids however cross Mars’ orbit. In fact, the two moons orbiting Mars today are believed to be Amor asteroids that were snatched by Mars’ gravitational field.
So far, over 1200 Amor are known, with less than 200 numbered and more than 50 named.
If an asteroid is found to approach and actually threaten Earth, do we ever stand a chance? Like, first of all, can we land on it just like the crew in the movie Armageddon did? Well, a robotic space probe named Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous – Shoemaker (NEAR Shoemaker) successfully landed on one of the Amor asteroids, 433 Eros, back in February 12, 2001.
Does the name of the probe sound familiar? Yes, we mentioned him earlier as the co-discoverer of Dionysus.
Gene Shoemaker is recognized as one of the founders of the fields of planetary science. Along with his wife, Carolyn, and David Levy, Gene co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Gene is also credited to have confirmed Daniel Barringer’s theory that Canyon Diablo Crater (or Barringer Crater) was caused by an asteroid impact.
Carolyn, on the other hand, is widely known as having discovered the most number of comets compared to any individual. Including Dionysus, the total number of asteroids discovered by Carolyn Shoemaker is 370.
How big a threat are near-earth asteroids? Just look at the Moon and you’ll know the threat can be pretty significant. By the way, Barringer Crater is not the only impact crater (i.e., caused by the impact of a celestial object) in the planet. And although these craters may have been formed millions or even billions of years ago, when the Solar System was still in disarray, just remember Dionysus and its near-earth siblings.
Of course, you can also find more information from the following links:
NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids
Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.
Alternatively, you can also listen to an interesting episode about craters in Astronomy Cast.