2014 AZ5: The Fake Asteroid that Won’t Hit Earth

Artists impression of an asteroid flying by Earth. Credit: NASA

Be careful where you get your news. Some websites have headlines that are screaming “GIANT ASTEROID HEADING TO EARTH!” or “2014 END OF THE WORLD!” It’s been billed as the largest threat to Earth in a millennium, and this supposed nearly 300 meter (1,000 ft.) -wide asteroid is spurring “urgent meetings going on among scientists on how deflect it.”

This asteroid can’t hit Earth because it doesn’t exist. Or at the very least, it doesn’t exist yet. The first clue this asteroid is a fake is its name: 2014 AZ5. Asteroids are named for the year they are discovered, and since it is only 2013…. well, you see the issue.

Additionally, this asteroid isn’t listed on JPL’s Small Body Database, or the Minor Planet Center’s website, the official places where all known asteroids are listed. As much as some people like to think there are conspiracies and government cover-ups, absolutely every asteroid that’s ever been detected is listed on these sites.

There is, actually, another asteroid that will be whizzing by Earth this week at a very safe distance of about 950,000 km. On March 9, Asteroid 2013 ET, a very large 100 meter-wide rock will make its closest approach. Gianluca Masi from the Virtual Telescope project will host a webcast from the Virtual Telescope robotic facility in Italy on March 8, 2013 at 19:00 UT (2 pm EST). You can watch for free on their website. “It is worth to underline that there are NO risks at all of collision,” Masi said.

Here’s an image of 2013 ET that Masi took on March 4, 2013:

Asteroid 2013 ET imaged by the Virtual Telescope. Credit: Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope.
Asteroid 2013 ET imaged by the Virtual Telescope. Credit: Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope.

Hat tip: Ian Musgrave.

Looking Into the Moon’s Permanently Shadowed Craters

This shaded relief image shows the Moon's Shackleton Crater, a 21-km-wide crater permanently shadowed crater near the lunar south pole. The crater’s interior structure is shown in false color based on data from NASA's LRO probe. Scientists suspect that there's a lot of water ice hidden in the crater's shadow. Credit: NASA

There are some craters on the Moon that never see the light of day. But that doesn’t stop the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from shedding new light on some the darkest mysteries on the lunar surface. With its battery of instruments, LRO has been collecting data so that we can learn more about what we can’t see with our eyes or with optical telescopes. The video provides more details, but by studing the Moon, we’ll improve our understanding of the solar system, bringing new discoveries to light.

For more info, see the LRO website.

Astrophoto: A Night of Two Comets

Comets Pan-STARRS and Lemmon over Bariloche.Argentina on March 4, 2013. Credit and copyright: Guillermo Abramson.

While those of us in the northern hemisphere are impatiently waiting to see Comet PANSTARRS (tonight, March 7 it should be visible in the southern parts of the US and Europe just after twilight), southern hemisphere observers have been dazzled by not one but TWO comets. Here, astrophotographer Guillermo Abramson captures both PANSTARRS and Comet Lemmon in one shot on March 4, 2013!

Below is a great shot Abramson took of Comet PANSTARRS on March 3:

Comet PANSTARRS sets behind Mt. Cathedral, in Bariloche, Argentina. Credit and copyright: Guillermo Abramson.
Comet PANSTARRS sets behind Mt. Cathedral, in Bariloche, Argentina. Credit and copyright: Guillermo Abramson.

If you need info on how to see Comet PANSTARRS this month, check out our detailed guide here.

With this being the Year of the Comets make sure to submit all your comet astrophotos to our Flickr page. We’ll be posting more images from comet-watchers soon!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Kepler’s Weirdest Exoplanets

Artist's concept of Kepler in action. NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel.

Captain Kirk has nothing on the “strange new worlds” the Kepler space telescope has found.

NASA’s planet-probing orbiting observatory launched its quest to find more Earths four years ago this week. Since then, it’s found thousands of planets ranging from ginormous gas giants to tiny rocky worlds that are even smaller than our planet. NASA extended its mission to 2016 last year, putting the telescope into planet-hunting overtime and, we assume, scientists into overdrive.

Along the way, Kepler has revealed some bizarre star systems. Check out some of the weirdest exoplanets Kepler has found so far:

‘Tatooine’ (Kepler-16b)

Kepler 16b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-16b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Circumbinary” is the scientific explanation for Kepler-16b’s 2 star-system. But “Tatooine” is the name that took the public by storm (or is that Stormtrooper?) when this world, orbiting two stars, was revealed in 2011. Although it’s named after Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars, proving Kepler-16b is habitable would be a bit of a stretch. The planet’s mass is about one-third that of Jupiter, and surface temperatures reach an estimated and frigid -100 degrees Celsius.

Deciphering a tune (Kepler-37b)

Kepler-37b, a moon-sized exoplanet. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-37b, a moon-sized exoplanet. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Scientists found Kepler 37-b through listening to its parent star sing. Seriously. The planet (just slightly larger than our moon) was revealed through measuring oscillations in brightness caused by star-quakes, then converting those to sound. “The bigger the star, the lower the frequency, or ‘pitch’ of its song,” said Steve Kawaler, a research team member from Iowa State University in a past Universe Today interview.

The 6-planet swarm (Kepler-11b, 11c, 11d, 11e, 11f, 11g)

Kepler's planets displayed by size comparison. The six new planets around Kepler 11 are on the bottom. Image credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel
Kepler’s planets displayed by size comparison. The six new planets around Kepler 11 are on the bottom. Image credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

It’s sure crowded around the star Kepler-11. There are six planets orbiting in circles smaller than Venus’ orbit around the Sun. Not only that, but five of those planets are even closer to their parent star than Mercury is to our sun. Excited astronomers said the system will rewrite planetary formation theories. “We really were just amazed at his gift that nature has given us,” said Jack Lissauer, co-investigator of the Kepler mission, in 2011. “With six transiting planets, and five so close and getting the sizes and masses of five of these worlds, there is only one word that adequately describes the new finding: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The warring siblings (Kepler-36b and 36c)

In this artist’s conception, a “hot Neptune” known as Kepler-36c looms in the sky of its neighbor, the rocky world Kepler-36b. The two planets have repeated close encounters, experiencing a conjunction every 97 days on average. At that time, they are separated by less than 5 Earth-Moon distances. Such close approaches stir up tremendous gravitational tides that squeeze and stretch both planets, which may promote active volcanism on Kepler-36b. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a “hot Neptune” known as Kepler-36c looms in the sky of its neighbor, the rocky world Kepler-36b. The two planets have repeated close encounters, experiencing a conjunction every 97 days on average. At that time, they are separated by less than 5 Earth-Moon distances. Such close approaches stir up tremendous gravitational tides that squeeze and stretch both planets, which may promote active volcanism on Kepler-36b.
Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Take a planet the size of Neptune and put it near Earth, and you’d have some scary results. Tides from the constant interaction would raise the water and the ground, causing fissures and no end of local zoning headaches for municipal authorities as the ground shifts, to say the least. Seriously, though, Kepler-36b (the rocky world) comes within less than 5 Earth-Moon distances of Kepler 36-c (a gaseous world about 8 times larger) every 97 days or so. They’ll never crash into each other, but just like young human siblings, they can cause quite a bit of chaos.

The mirror (Kepler-7b)

Kepler 7b, at right, was one of the first planets discovered by Kepler. Credit: NASA
Kepler 7b, at right, was one of the first planets discovered by Kepler. Credit: NASA

Well, Kepler-7b isn’t quite as reflective as a mirror, but it certainly catches more sunlight than scientists expected. This “hot Jupiter” was among the first planets that Kepler spotted. In 2011, however, it was revealed that its albedo, or reflectivity, flirted with the upper limit for these humongous planets. What’s causing this? Could be clouds, or could be the composition of its atmosphere. Shows we still have a lot to learn about these exoplanets.

Distant Suns Astronomy App Giveaway

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS photographed with a 200mm telephoto lens over Bridgetown, Western Australia on March 10. Credit: Jim Gifford

Have you ever been out on a beautiful, starry night and wondered what it was you were seeing? Maybe you are walking your date home on an amazing, clear night and want to impress the heck out of her by comparing her eyes to the stars in Orion’s Belt; or her movements are as graceful as the swans in Cygnus. The Distant Suns app will help you locate these features in the night sky to back your romantic gestures with pure science.

The people at Distant Suns have been working hard to improve the features in this already cool app. The latest and greatest addition is the ability to track Comet PANSTARRS more easily. One of my favorite features of this app is the overlaying of the local landscape with the current features in the night sky. This really allows you to have a reference point for your stargazing in the future should you find yourself without your cell phone.

For the rest of this week until Sunday only, the Distant Suns App is available for half price. If that is still too rich for your blood, try to win one of 6 free copies that Universe Today and Distant Suns is offering to give away this week. With the days getting longer and the nights getting warmer, this is a really cool way to learn about the features of the night sky without the benefit of a telescope.

This Giveaway is now closed. Thank you for your interest!

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, March 11, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

About Distant Suns Astronomy App distantsunslogo
Features include:

  • Augmented Reality Viewing overlays the sky with the local landscape (iOS only)
  • What’s Up? Offers an overview of the evening’s sky
  • GPS and Compass aware
  • News ticker of up-to-date space and astronomy news
  • NASA’s Night Sky Network of local astronomical events
  • Over 300,000 planets, stars, galaxies, nebula and star clusters
  • Interactive tour of the solar system
  • Available for purchase at the App Store
  • Distant Suns Astronomy Apps are also available for Android, Kindle and Nook. For more information, please go to Distant Suns product page.



Evil Empire Beware: Gas Giant Planets are Hard to Destroy

Jupiter and its four planet-size moons, called the Galilean satellites photographed and assembled into a collage by NASA.

Last year, physicists worked out the plausibility of a fully functional (if not fictional) Death Star being able to destroy planets, and found that the Galactic Empire’s technological terror could indeed destroy Earth-like rocky planets, but a Jupiter-sized gas planet would be a tough challenge.

Now, real but theoretical modeling confirms that gas giants like Jupiter would be really hard to destroy by any means, including by stars that undergo periodic outbursts. Actual stars, that is, not Death Stars.

Alan Boss is a noted astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, who likes to create three dimensional models of planetary systems. In his recent work, he created 3-D models to help understand the possible origins of Jupiter and Saturn, two gas giants in our Solar System.

He created different models of new stars, which are surrounded by rotating gas disks where planets are thought to form. His models were based on different theories of planetary formation, such as that planets could form from slowly growing ice and rock cores, followed by rapid accretion of gas from the surrounding disk, or that planets form from clumps of dense gas, which increase in mass and density, forming a gas giant planet in a single step.

What he found was, that regardless of how gas giant planets form, they should be able to survive periodic outbursts of mass transfer from the gas disk onto the young star. One model similar to our own Solar System was stable for more than 1,000 years, while another model containing planets similar to our Jupiter and Saturn was stable for more than 3,800 years. The models showed that these planets were able to avoid being forced to migrate inward to be swallowed by the growing proto-sun, or being tossed completely out of the planetary system by close encounters with each other.

“Gas giant planets, once formed, can be hard to destroy,” said Boss, “even during the energetic outbursts that young stars experience.”

Some Sun-like stars undergo these periodic outbursts which can last about 100 years. The Death Star, on the other hand — which according to Star Wars lore, is a moon-sized battle station designed to spread fear throughout the galaxy – uses short bursts of its hypermatter reactor superlaser. However, the Death Star’s main power reactor is said to have the energy output equal to several main-sequence stars. But to destroy a planet like Jupiter, all power from essential systems and life support would be required, which is not necessarily possible.

So, in all cases – real, theoretical and fictional — gas giants appear to be safe!

You can read the about the Death Star paper here (from physicists who apparently had some time on their hands) here, and read about Boss’s theoretical modeling of here.

Boss is the author of The Crowded Universe, a book on the likelihood of finding life and habitable planets outside of our Solar System, and Looking For Earths, about the race to find new solar systems.

The Death Star in Star Wars. Credit: Lucasfilm.
The Death Star in Star Wars. Credit: Lucasfilm.

Giant Ancient Impact Crater Confirmed in Iowa

3-D perspective map of the Decorah impact feature looking northward. (Credit: USGS/Adam Kiel graphic/Northeast Iowa RC&D).

A monster lurks under northeastern Iowa. That monster is in the form of a giant buried basin, the result of a meteorite impact in central North America over 470 million years ago.

A recent aerial survey conducted by the state of Minnesota Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) confirms the existence of an impact structure long suspected near the eastern edge of the town of Decorah, Iowa. The goal of the 60 day survey was a routine look at possible mineral and water resources in the region, but the confirmation of the crater was an added plus. Continue reading “Giant Ancient Impact Crater Confirmed in Iowa”

Rare Eclipsing Binary Stars Provide Refined Measurements in the Universe

The Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy to the Milky Way. The positions of eight faint and rare cool eclipsing binary stars are marked with crosses. Credit: ESO/R. Gendler

Precise observations of a rare class of binary stars have now allowed a team of astronomers to improve the measurement of the distance to one of our neighboring galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud, and in the process, refine the Hubble Constant, an astronomical calculation that helps measure the expansion of the Universe. The astronomers say this is a crucial step towards understanding the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is causing the expansion to accelerate.

The team used telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, the Las Campanas Observatory also in Chile and two from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the Las Campanas Observatoryas well as others around the globe. These results appear in the 7 March 2013 issue of the journal Nature.

The new distance to the LMC is 163,000 light-years. The LMC is not the closest galaxy to the Milky Way; Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, discovered in 2003 is considered the actual nearest neighbor at 42,000 light-years from the Galactic Center, and the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy is about 50,000 light-years from the core of the Milky Way.

Astronomers ascertain the scale of the universe by first measuring the distances to close-by objects and then using them as standard candles — objects of known brightness — to pin down distances farther and farther out in the universe.

Up to now, finding an accurate distance to the LMC has proved elusive. Stars in that galaxy are used to fix the distance scale for more remote galaxies, so it is crucially important.

“This is a true milestone in modern astronomy. Because we know the distance to our nearest neighbor galaxy so precisely, we can now determine the rate at which the universe is expanding — the Hubble constant — with much better accuracy. This will allow us to investigate the physical nature of the enigmatic dark energy, the cause of the accelerated expansion of the universe,” says Dr. Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

“For extragalactic astronomers,” said Dr. Fabio Bresolin, also from UH, “the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud represents a fundamental yardstick with which the whole universe can be measured. Obtaining an accurate value for it has been a major challenge for generations of scientists. Our team has overcome the difficulties using an exquisitely accurate method, and is already working to cut the small remaining uncertainty by half in the next few years.”

The team worked out the distance to the LMC by observing rare close pairs of stars known as eclipsing binaries. As these stars orbit each other, they pass in front of each other. When this happens, as seen from Earth, the total brightness drops, both when one star passes in front of the other and, by a different amount, when it passes behind.

Read another recent article about studies that used eclipsing binaries to study the Light-travel-time Effect

By tracking these changes in brightness very carefully, and also measuring the stars’ orbital speeds, it is possible to work out how big the stars are, what their masses are, and other information about their orbits. When this is combined with careful measurements of the total brightness and colors of the stars, remarkably accurate distances can be found.

“Now we have solved this problem by demonstrably having a result accurate to 2%,” states Wolfgang Gieren (Universidad de Concepción, Chile) and one of the leaders of the team.

Sources: University of Hawaii, ESO

‘First Light’ Image for Telescope on the International Space Station

The first light from the new ISERV camera system, taken on February 16, 2013 shows the Rio San Pablo as it empties into the Golfo de Montijo in Veraguas, Panama. NASA image by Burgess Howell, SERVIR Global program.

As we reported in January, a new telescope was installed on the International Space Station – not to observe the stars, but instead look back to Earth to acquire imagery of specific areas of the world for disaster analysis and environmental studies. Called ISERV (International Space Station SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System), it has now taken its first image. Above is the “first light” from the new ISERV, taken at 1:44 p.m. local time on February 16, 2013.

No, this is not a giant tree trunk! It is the Rio San Pablo as it empties into the Golfo de Montijo in Veraguas, Panama.

The telescope is a modified off-the-shelf Celestron telescope, the Celestron CPC 925, a 9.25? diffraction limited Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and if you were to buy a un-modified version, it would cost $2,500 including the mount.

The ISERV version was modified at the Marshall Space Flight Center, which is where it is controlled from, as well. It is installed in the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) in the station’s Destiny laboratory. With a resolution down to 3.2 meters (10 feet), it will be possible to spot fairly small details and objects.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield with the new ISERV (International Space Station SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System), a modified Celestron telescope for Earth observation. Credit: NASA/CSA
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield with the new ISERV (International Space Station SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System), a modified Celestron telescope for Earth observation. Credit: NASA/CSA

This ISERV Pathfinder is intended as an engineering exercise, with the long-term goal of developing a system for providing imagery to developing nations as they monitor natural disasters and environmental concerns.

“ISERV’s full potential is yet to be seen, but we hope it will really make a difference in people’s lives,” said principal investigator Burgess Howell of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “For example, if an earthen dam gives way in Bhutan, we want to be able to show officials where the bridge is out or where a road is washed out or a power substation is inundated. This kind of information is critical to focus and speed rescue efforts.”

The system will use on positioning software to know where the space station is at each moment and to calculate the next chance to view a particular area on the ground. If there’s a good viewing opportunity, the SERVIR team will instruct the camera to take high-resolution photographs at 3 to 7 frames per second, totaling as many as 100 images per pass.

The current mission will test the limitations of this ISERV system and identify measures for improvements in a more permanent system. For instance, the engineering team is working to determine how the geometry of the ISS window affects the imagery; how much sunlight is needed to capture clear images; and how the atmosphere affects that clarity. This characterization phase will last several weeks to a few months. Eventually, ISERV should be made available to the natural hazards community and to basic research scientists.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Next Soyuz Crew Will Take 6-Hour Fast-Track to Space Station

Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

The next Soyuz crew will be the first to try out the new abbreviated four-orbit rendezvous with the International Space Station. This relatively new, modified launch and docking profile for the Russian ships has been tried successfully with three Progress resupply vehicles, and now Roscosmos and NASA have agreed to try it on a human flight.

“We tried this approach on the cargo vehicles, and now we will try to do it on the manned vehicles,” said Sergei Krikalev, former cosmonaut, who now leads the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow, speaking through an interpreter on NASA TV. “Now we have onboard new machinery and new software, so the vehicle is more autonomous, so it’s possible to do a lot onboard the vehicle and to calculate the burns so they don’t consume a lot of fuel.”

In the past, Soyuz manned capsules and Progress supply ships were launched on trajectories that required about two days, or 34 orbits, to reach the ISS. The new fast-track trajectory has the rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead. Then, additional firings of the vehicle’s thrusters early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the Station.

Liftoff of the Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft is scheduled for 4:43 p.m. EDT (20:43 UTC) on March 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Docking is set for 10:31 p.m. EDT (02:31 UTC).

“The Soyuz is not the most comfortable vehicle to be in for an extended period of time,” said NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy who is part of the Expedition 35/36 crew who will make the first fast-track flight. “The toilet is right next to where you sleep which are right next to your buddy and eating and all; it’s like living for a day in a smart car or a Volkswagen Beetle….So the benefit to us is we get to the space station faster with the facilities that it offers, much more comfortable type of environment to be in and it also demonstrates some technology that’s useful in getting to the space station on that same day.”

One of the reasons given in the past for having the two-day or even three-day flight in the Soyuz was to allow the crew members time to get acclimated to being in a weightless environment. This new fast approach doesn’t allow for that, but Cassidy said he doesn’t think that thinking is really applicable, since the cramped Soyuz is so different from the voluminous space station.

“The adaptation of that I think is a little bit different,” he said. “You’re really not truly adapting in that day and a half. Two days on the Soyuz, that same adaptation that you’ll have once you get to the space station just because it’s a different perspective for your brain to get its arms around.”

The Soyuz took the first crew to the International Space Station in November 2000, and since that time, at least one Soyuz has always been at the Station, generally to bring the crews back and forth, but also to serve as a lifeboat should the crew have to return to Earth unexpectedly. Now that the space shuttles have been retired, the Soyuz is currently the only way for ISS crews to go to and from the Station. When there is a full crew of six on board, that means two Soyuz are docked at the ISS.

SpaceX is shooting for sometime in 2015 for the first crew flights of the Dragon to the ISS.