Astronomers Measure Sunlight’s Shove

by Jason Major on June 15, 2012

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The physical force of sunlight on a moving asteroid has been measured by NASA scientists, providing information on how to better plot these Earth-passing worlds’ future paths.

First proposed by a 19-century Russian engineer, the Yarkovsky effect is the result of an object in space absorbing radiation from the Sun and emitting it as heat, thus creating a slight-but-measurable change in its movement (thanks to Newton’s first law of motion.)

By observing the 1999, 2005 and 2011 close passes of asteroid 1999 RQ36 with the Arecibo and Goldstone radar telescopes, astronomers were able to determine how much the trajectory of the half-kilometer-wide asteroid had changed.

The researchers’ findings revealed that RQ36 shifted by 160 km – about 100 miles – over the course of those 12 years. That deviation is attributed to the Yarkovsky effect. A miniscule force in and of itself, over time it has the ability to move entire worlds (albeit relatively small ones.)

“The Yarkovsky force on 1999 RQ36 at its peak, when the asteroid is nearest the Sun, is only about a half ounce — about the weight of three grapes on Earth,” said Steven Chesley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena “Meanwhile, the mass of the asteroid is estimated to be about 68 million tons. You need extremely precise measurements over a fairly long time span to see something so slight acting on something so huge.”

Using measurements of the distance between the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and RQ36 during its latest pass in 2011 – a feat that was compared by team leader Michael Nolan to “measuring the distance between New York City and Los Angeles to an accuracy of two inches” – Chesley and his team were able to calculate all the asteroid’s near-Earth approaches closer than 7.5 million km (4.6 million miles) from the years 1654 to 2135. 11 such passes were found.

In addition, observation of 1999 RQ36 with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found it to have about the same density as water – that’s light, for an asteroid.

Most likely, RQ36 is a “rubble-pile” form of asteroid, composed of a conglomeration of individual chunks of material held together by gravity.

These findings will be used by NASA scientists to help fine-tune the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2016 to rendezvous with 1999 RQ36 and return samples to Earth in 2023. Being a loose collection of rocks is expected to aid in the spacecraft’s sample retrieval process.

The findings were presented on May 19 at the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 2012 meeting in Niigata, Japan. Read more here.

(Top image: series of radar images of asteroid 1999 RQ36 were obtained by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif. on Sept 23, 1999. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

squidgeny June 15, 2012 at 4:40 PM

I’m a little confused. Did the scientists predict where it would be in 12 years’ time, and attribute the 100-mile difference to a Sun-shove? A 100 miles is tiny, I’d be very surprised if we had that kind of accuracy in the first place.

Torbjörn Larsson June 16, 2012 at 1:24 PM

That seems to be what they did.

Aqua4U June 15, 2012 at 5:55 PM

Asteroid or a ‘has been’ comet?

Torbjörn Larsson June 16, 2012 at 1:36 PM

I don’t think there is any quick and dirty qualitative distinction.

Modern observations puts asteroids and comets on a hole space continuum out to these rubble pile fluffy stuff aggregates, as well as having the original dust coming from all over the protoplanetary disk as asteroids and comets assembled.

Possibly then you could call all objects that ended up outside the ice line as comets as they are more easily able to form large volatile tails.

As for 1999 RQ36, I dunno about its astronomical status. Apparently it is an Apollo population asteroid, and at least in 1981 they were mostly genuine asteroids:

“As the rate of replenishment of short-lived Apollo-Amor asteroids from the main belt seems to be insufficient to compensate for their losses, the idea was put forward that most of them are inactive cometary nuclei. However, the observational and theoretical evidence is inconclusive about whether it is possible to transform cometary nuclei into asteroid-like objects. There is good evidence that Apollo-Amor asteroids represent the last parent bodies of most, or even all, classes of meteorites. But meteorites cannot be formed within cometary nuclei having a constitution like Whipple’s classical model, and alternative models seem to be unsatisfactory. Therefore, it is concluded that the cometary origin of most Apollo-Amor asteroids is implausible and they are genuine asteroids coming from the main belt.”

William Tatum June 16, 2012 at 2:34 PM

Could this effect explain some of the pioneer anomalies?

SAM223 June 17, 2012 at 12:39 AM

This is more proof to me that Solar Sailing is quite feasable and doable as a way to get around our inner solar system. Now, just need to calculate distance/mass of our “craft”/ sail size/ and velocities with a time componant to see how much of a clip we could achieve.
That kind of math is beyond me. Presently anyway. Anybody out there willing to takle that stuff? I am writing a SF story about that and need some hard numbers.

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