Astronomy Cast Ep. 459: Arecibo Observatory

The iconic Arecibo Radio Observatory has been a mainstay in science and science fiction. This Puerto Rico-based radio telescope was already in an uncertain level of funding. But now with the damage from Hurricane Maria, it might be shut down forever.

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2014 JO25 Flies By Earth — See It Tonight

This composite of 30 images of asteroid 2014 JO25 was generated with radar data collected using NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert on Tuesday April 18. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

Asteroid 2014 JO25, discovered in 2014 by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, was in the spotlight today (April 19) when it flew by Earth at just four times the distance of the Moon. Today’s encounter is the closest the object has come to the Earth in 400 years and will be its closest approach for at least the next 500 years.

Lots of asteroids zip by our planet, and new ones are discovered every week. What makes 2014 JO25 different it’s one of nearly 1,800 PHAs (Potentially Hazardous Asteroids) that are big enough and occasionally pass close enough to Earth to be of concern. PHAs have diameters of at least 100-150 meters (330-490 feet) and pass less than 0.05 a.u (7.5 million km / 4.6 million miles) from our planet. Good thing for earthlings, no known PHA is predicted to impact Earth for at least the next 100 years.

Most of these Earth-approachers are on the small side, only a few to a few dozen meters (yards) across. 2014 JO25 was originally estimated at ~2,000 feet wide, but thanks to radar observations made the past couple days, we now know it’s nearly twice that size. Radar images of asteroid were made early this morning with NASA’s 230-foot (70-meter) radio antenna at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. They reveal a peanut-shaped asteroid that rotates about once every 5 hours and show details as small as 25 feet.

NASA radar images and animation of asteroid 2015 JO25

The larger of the two lobes is about 2,000 feet (620 meters) across, making the total length closer to 4,000 feet. That’s similar in size (though not as long) as the Rock of Gibraltar that stands at the southwestern tip of Europe at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

“The asteroid has a contact binary structure — two lobes connected by a neck-like region,” said Shantanu Naidu, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the Goldstone observations. “The images show flat facets, concavities and angular topography.” Contact binaries form when two separate asteroids come close enough together to touch and meld as one.

The Goldstone dish dish, based in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Cal. is used for radar mapping of planets, comets, asteroids and the Moon. Credit: NASA

Radar observations of the asteroid have also been underway at the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with more observations coming today through the 21st which may show even finer details. The technique of pinging asteroids with radio waves and eking out information based on the returning echoes has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids.

When these relics from the early solar system pass relatively close to Earth, astronomers can glean their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features, and roughness, as well as determine their orbits with precision.

Because of 2014 JO25’s relatively large size and proximity, it’s bright enough to spot in a small telescope this evening. It will shine around magnitude +10.9 from North America tonight as it travels south-southwest across the dim constellation Coma Berenices behind the tail of Leo the Lion. A good map and 3-inch or larger telescope should show it.

Use the maps at this link to help you find and track the asteroid tonight. The key to spotting it is to allow time to identify and get familiar with the star field the asteroid will pass through 10 to 15 minutes in advance — then lay in wait for the moving object. Don’t be surprised if 2014 JO25 deviates a little from the predicted path depending on your location and late changes to its orbit, so keep watch not only on the path but around it, too. Good luck!

Video of Green Comet 45P Puts You Close To The Action

This animation of comet 45P/H-M-P is composed of thirteen delay-Doppler images made during 2 hours of observation using the Arecibo Observatory on Feb. 12. Credit: USRA

Comets hide their central engines well. From Earth, we see a bright, fuzzy coma and a tail or two. But the nucleus, the source of all the hubbub, remains deeply camouflaged by dust, at best appearing like a blurry star.

To see one up close, you need to send a spacecraft right into the comet’s coma and risk getting. Or you can do the job much more cheaply by bouncing radio waves off the nucleus and studying the returning echoes to create a shadowy image.

Although crude compared to optical photos of moons and planets, radar images reveal much about an asteroid including surface details like mountains, craters, shape and rotation rate. They’re also far superior to what optical telescopes can resolve when it comes to asteroids, which, as their name implies, appear star-like or nearly so in even large professional telescopes.

On Feb. 11, green-glowing comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, made an unusually close pass of Earth, zipping just 7.7 million miles away. Astronomers made the most of the encounter by pressing the huge 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) Arecibo radio dish into service to image the comet’s nucleus during and after closest approach.

Arecibo Observatory, the world’s biggest single dish radio telescope, was and is still being used to image comet 45P/H-M-P. Courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

“The Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system can pierce through the comet’s coma and allows us to study the surface properties, size, shape, rotation, and geology of the comet nucleus”, said Dr. Patrick Taylor, USRA Scientist and Group Lead for Planetary Radar at Arecibo.

The two lobes of comet 67P/C-G stand out clearly in this photo taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft while in orbit about the comet on March 6, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta

Does the shape ring a bell? Remember Rubber Ducky? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the comet’s heart resembles the twin-lobed comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbited by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Using the dish, astronomers have seen bright regions and structures on the comet; they also discovered that the nucleus is a little larger than expected with a diameter of 0.8 mile (1.3 km) and rotates about once every 7.6 hours. Go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 and the comet will have made one complete turn.

Comet 45P is seen here on Feb. 8, 2017. While its overall brightness is about magnitude +8.5, the comet appears diffuse and rather faint. From dark skies, it remains a binocular object at least for a little while. Credit: Chris Schur

Radio observations of 45P/H-M-P will continue through Feb. 17. Right now, the comet is happily back in the evening sky and still visible with 10×50 or larger binoculars around 10-11 p.m. local time in the east. I spotted it low in Bootes last night about 15 minutes before moonrise under excellent, dark sky conditions. It looked like a faint, smoky ball nearly as big as the full moon or about 30 arc minutes across.

This week, the pale green blob (the green’s from fluorescing carbon), vaults upward from Bootes, crosses Canes Venatici and zooms into Coma Berenices. For maps to help you track and find it night by night, please click here. I suggest larger binoculars 50mm and up or a 6-inch or larger telescope. Be sure to use low power — the comet’s so big, you need a wide field of view to get dark sky around it in order to see it more clearly.

Very few comets pass near Earth compared to the number of asteroids that routinely do. That’s one reason 45P is only the seventh imaged using radar; rarely are we treated to such detailed views!

Wow! Gas Bridge In The Universe Stretches 2.6 Million Light-Years Across

How the heck did all that gas get there? Researchers have discovered an astonishing amount of it bridging galaxies, stretching across a stream that is 2.6 million light-years across. This is more than a million light-years longer than a similar stream that was previously found in the Virgo Cluster.

“This was totally unexpected,” stated Rhys Taylor, a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences who led the research. “We frequently see gas streams in galaxy clusters, where there are lots of galaxies close together, but to find something this long and not in a cluster is unprecedented.”

The atomic hydrogen gas is about 500 million light-years away and was spotted with the William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Its origins are unknown, but one hypothesis postulateas that a larger galaxy passed close to smaller galaxies in the distant past, drawing out the gas as the larger galaxy moved apart again. Alternately, the large galaxy could have pushed through the group and disturbed the gas within it.

The research will be published shortly in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Awesome Radar Images Reveal Asteroid 2014 HQ124’s Split Personality


On June 8, the 370-meter (about 1,300-ft.) asteroid 2014 HQ124 breezed by Earth at a distance of just 800,000 miles (1.3 million km). Only hours after closest approach, astronomers used a pair of radio telescopes to produce some of the most detailed images of a near-Earth asteroid ever obtained.  They reveal a peanut-shaped world called a ‘contact binary’, an asteroid comprised of two smaller bodies touching.

About one in six asteroids in the near-Earth population has this type of elongated or “peanut” shape. It’s thought that contact binaries form when two or more asteroids get close enough to touch and ‘stick’ together through their mutual gravitational attraction. Asteroid 25143 Itokawa, visited and sampled by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa in 2005, is another member of this shapely group.

Radar observations of asteroid 2014 HQ124 seen here in video

The 21 radar images were taken over a span of four hours and reveal a rotation rate of about 20 hours. They also show features as small as about 12 feet (3.75 meters) wide. This is the highest resolution currently possible using scientific radar antennas to produce images. Such sharp views were made possible for this asteroid by linking together two giant radio telescopes to enhance their capabilities.

Astronomers used the  230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif. to beam radar signals at the asteroid which reflected them back to the much larger 1000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. The technique greatly increases the amount of detail visible in radar images. 

Aerial view of the 1,000-foot dish at Arecibo Observatory. Credit: NOAA
Aerial view of the 1,000-foot dish at Arecibo Observatory. Credit: NOAA

Arecibo Observatory and Goldstone radar facilities are unique for their ability to resolve features on asteroids, while most optical telescopes on the ground would see these cosmic neighbors simply as unresolved points of light. The radar images reveal a host of interesting features, including a large depression on the larger lobe as well as two blocky, sharp-edged features at the bottom on the radar echo (crater wall?) and a small protrusion along its long side that looks like a mountain. Scientists suspect that some of the bright features visible in multiple frames could be surface boulders.

“These radar observations show that the asteroid is a beauty, not a beast”, said Alessondra Springmann, a data analyst at Arecibo Observatory.


A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: Marina Brozovic and Joseph Jao, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ Caltech/ NASA/ USRA/ Arecibo Observatory/ NSF
A single radar image frame close-up view of 2014 HQ124. Credit: NASA

The first five images in the sequence (top row in the montage) represent the data collected by Arecibo, and demonstrate that these data are 30 times brighter than what Goldstone can produce observing on its own. There’s a gap of about 35 minutes between the first and second rows in the montage, representing the time needed to switch from receiving at Arecibo to receiving at the smaller Goldstone station.

If you relish up-close images of asteroids as much as I do, check out NASA’s Asteroid Radar Research site for more photos and information on how radar pictures are made.

There Are Now Officially Over 1,000 Confirmed Exoplanets!

It was just last week that we reported on the oh-so-close approach to 1,000 confirmed exoplanets discovered thus far, and now it’s official: the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia now includes more than 1,000! (1,010, to be exact.)

21 years after the first planets beyond our own Solar System were even confirmed to exist, it’s quite a milestone!

The milestone of 1,000 confirmed exoplanets was surpassed on October 22, 2013 after twenty-one years of discoveries. The long-established and well-known Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia now lists 1,010 confirmed exoplanets.

Not all current exoplanet catalogs list the same numbers as this depends on their particular criteria. For example, the more recent NASA Exoplanet Archive lists just 919. Nevertheless, over 3,500 exoplanet candidates are waiting for confirmation.

The first confirmed exoplanets were discovered by the Arecibo Observatory in 1992. Two small planets were found around the remnants of a supernova explosion known as a pulsar. They were the surviving cores of former planets or newly formed bodies from the ashes of a dead star. This was followed by the discovery of exoplanets around sun-like stars in 1995 and the beginning of a new era of exoplanet hunting.

A "Periodic Table of Exoplanets" as listed by the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (PHL)
A “Periodic Table of Exoplanets” as listed by the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (PHL)

(The first exoplanets to be confirmed were two orbiting pulsar PSR B1257+12, 1,000 light-years away. A third was found in 2007.)

Exoplanet discoveries have been full of surprises from the outset. Nobody expected exoplanets around the remnants of a dead star (i.e. PSR 1257+12), nor Jupiter-size orbiting close to their stars (i.e. 51 Pegasi). We also know today of stellar systems packed with exoplanets (i.e. Kepler-11), around binary stars (i.e. Kepler-16), and with many potentially habitable exoplanets (i.e. Gliese 667C).

Read more: Earthlike Exoplanets are All Around Us

“The discovery of many worlds around others stars is a great achievement of science and technology. The work of scientists and engineers from many countries were necessary to achieve this difficult milestone. However, one thousand exoplanets in two decades is still a small fraction of those expected from the billions of stars in our galaxy. The next big goal is to better understand their properties, while detecting many new ones.”

– Prof. Abel Mendéz, Associate Professor of Physics and Astrobiology, UPR Arecibo

Source: Press release by Professor Abel Méndez at the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) at Arecibo

Read more: Kepler Can Still Hunt For Earth-Sized Exoplanets

While not illustrating the full 1,010 lineup, this is still a mesmerizing visualization by Daniel Fabrycky of 885 planetary candidates in 361 systems as found by the Kepler mission. (I for one am looking forward to the third installment!)

Of course, scientists are still hunting for the “Holy Grail” of extrasolar planets: an Earth-sized, rocky world orbiting a Sun-like star within its habitable zone. But with new discoveries and confirmations happening almost every week, it’s now only a matter of time. Read more in this recent article by Universe Today writer David Dickinson.

Could Cassini See You On “The Day The Earth Smiled?”

So along with the rest of the world, you smiled. You waved. You went outside on July 19, wherever you were, and looked upwards and out into the solar system knowing that our robotic representative Cassini would be capturing a few pixels’ worth of photons bouncing off our planet when they eventually reached Saturn, 900 million miles away. But did Cassini actually capture any photons coming from where you were? The image above will tell you.

Assembled by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo (where the enormous 305-meter radio telescope is located) this image shows what side of Earth was facing Cassini when its “pale blue dot” images were obtained, at approximately 22:47 UTC (Cassini time.)

Didn’t make it into Cassini’s photo? That’s ok… maybe MESSENGER had already caught you earlier that very same day:

The view of Earth seen by MESSENGER from Mercury on July 19, 2013
The view of Earth seen by MESSENGER from Mercury on July 19, 2013

Before Cassini took its images — several hours before, in fact — the MESSENGER spacecraft was holding some photo shoots of its own from 61 million miles in the other direction!

The image above shows the side of Earth that was facing Mercury on the morning of July 19, 2013, when MESSENGER was acquiring images in our direction during a hunt for any possible satellites of the innermost planet.

Earth was as bright (-4.8 magnitude) as the maximum brightness of Venus at the moment the image was taken from Mercury.

Of course, in both series of images specific details of our planet can’t be made out — Earth was barely more than a pixel in size (regardless of any bloom caused by apparent brightness.) Clouds, countries, continents, oceans… the entire population of our world, reduced to a single point of light — a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For both portrayals, high-resolution black and white images from the GOES East and Meteosat meteorological satellites were combined with color information from NASA Visible Earth to generate true-color images of our planet as it would have looked to each respective imaging spacecraft… if they had the impossibly-precise optics to resolve Earth from such distances, of course.

But it’s ok that they don’t… we can still use our imaginations.

Read more here on the PHL’s news release.

Earth from the geostationary weather satellite GOES East on July 19, 2013 at 5 PM EST. This is approximately the view that Cassini would have had of Earth during imaging.
Earth from the geostationary weather satellite GOES East on July 19, 2013 at 5 PM EST. This is approximately the view that Cassini would have had of Earth during imaging.

Image credits: PHL @ UPR Arecibo, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington, NERC Satellite Station, Dundee University, Scotland. Thanks to Prof. Abel Méndez (PHL/UCR) for the heads-up on these.

Earth-Passing Asteroid is “An Entirely New Beast”

On the last day of May 2013 asteroid 1998 QE2 passed relatively closely by our planet, coming within 6 million kilometers… about 15 times the distance to the Moon. While there was never any chance of an impact by the 3 km-wide asteroid and its surprise 750 meter satellite, astronomers didn’t miss out on the chance to observe the visiting duo as they soared past as it was a prime opportunity to learn more about two unfamiliar members of the Solar System.

By bouncing radar waves off 1998 QE2 from the giant dish at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, researchers were able to construct visible images of the asteroid and its ocean-liner-sized moon, as well as obtain spectrum data from NASA’s infrared telescope in Hawaii. What they discovered was quite surprising: QE2 is nothing like any asteroid ever seen near Earth.

The Arecibo radar observatory in Puerto Rico (Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)
The 305-meter dish at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (Image courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

Both Arecibo Observatory and NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California are unique among telescopes on Earth for their ability to resolve features on asteroids when optical telescopes on the ground merely see them as simple points of light. Sensitive radio receivers collect radio signals reflected from the asteroids, and computers turn the radio echoes into images that show features such as craters and, in 1998 QE2’s case, a small orbiting moon.

QE2’s moon appears brighter than the asteroid as it is rotating more slowly; thus its Doppler echoes compress along the Doppler axis of the image and appear stronger.

Of the asteroids that come close to Earth approximately one out of six have moons. Dr. Patrick Taylor, a USRA research astronomer at Arecibo, remarked that “QE2’s moon is roughly one-quarter the size of the main asteroid,” which itself is a lumpy, battered world.

Dr. Taylor also noted that our own Moon is a quarter the size of Earth.

QE2’s moon will help scientists determine the mass of the main asteroid and what minerals make up the asteroid-moon system. “Being able to determine its mass from the moon helps us understand better the asteroid’s material,” said Dr. Ellen Howell, a USRA research astronomer at Arecibo Observatory who took both radar images of the asteroid at Arecibo and optical and infrared images using the Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. While the optical images do not show detail of the asteroid’s surface, like the radar images do, instead they allow for measurements of what it is made of.

“What makes this asteroid so interesting, aside from being an excellent target for radar imaging,” Howell said, “is the color and small moon.”

Radar images of asteroid 1998 QE2 (bottom) and its satellite (top) on June 6.
Radar images of asteroid 1998 QE2 and its satellite (top) on June 6. (Arecibo Observatory/NASA/Ellen Howell)

“Asteroid QE2 is dark, red, and primitive – that is, it hasn’t been heated or melted as much as other asteroids,” continued Howell. “QE2 is nothing like any asteroid we’ve visited with a spacecraft, or plan to, or that we have meteorites from. It’s an entirely new beast in the menagerie of asteroids near Earth.”

Spectrum of 1998 QE2 taken May 30 at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea was “red sloped and linear,” indicating a primitive composition not matching any meteorites currently in their collection.

For more radar images of 1998 QE2, visit the Arecibo planetary radar page here.

Source: Universities Space Research Association press release.

How Big Are Galaxies?

I’m going to refrain from the initial response that comes to mind… actually, no I won’t — they’re really, really, really big!!!!

</Kermit arms>

Ok, now that that’s out of the way check out this graphic by Arecibo astrophysicist Rhys Taylor, which neatly illustrates the relative sizes of 25 selected galaxies using images made from NASA and ESA observation missions… including a rendering of our own surprisingly mundane Milky Way at the center for comparison. (Warning: this chart may adversely affect any feelings of bigness you may have once held dear.) According to Taylor on his personal blog, Physicists of the Caribbean (because he works had worked at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico) “Type in ‘asteroid sizes’ into Google and you’ll quickly find a bunch of  images comparing various asteroids, putting them all next to each at the same scale. The same goes for planets and stars. Yet the results for galaxies are useless. Not only do you not get any size comparisons, but scroll down even just a page and you get images of smartphones, for crying out loud.” So to remedy that marked dearth of galactic comparisons, Taylor made his own. Which, if you share my personal aesthetics, you’ll agree is quite nicely done.

“I tried to get a nice selection of well-known, interesting objects,” Taylor explains. “I was also a little limited in that I needed high-resolution images which completely mapped the full extent of each object… still, I think the final selection has a decent mix, and I reckon it was a productive use of a Saturday.” And even with the dramatic comparisons above, Taylor wasn’t able to accurately portray to scale one of the biggest — if not the biggest — galaxies in the observable universe: IC 1101.

For an idea of how we measure up to that behemoth, he made this graphic:

Galaxy sizes including IC 1101, the largest-known galaxy. Click for a zoomable version. (Credit: Rhys Taylor)
Galaxy sizes including IC 1101, the largest-known galaxy. Click for a zoomable version. (Credit: Rhys Taylor)

That big bright blur in the center? That’s IC 1101, the largest known galaxy — in this instance created by scaling up an image of M87, another supersized elliptical galaxy that just happens to be considerably closer to our own (and thus has had clearer images taken of it.) But the size is right — IC 1101 is gargantuan.

At an estimated 5.5 million light-years wide, over 50 Milky Ways could fit across it! And considering it takes our Solar System about 225 million years to complete a single revolution around the Milky Way… well… yeah. Galaxies are big. Really, really, reallyreally big!

</Kermit arms>

Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to go stop my head from spinning… Read this and more on Rhys Taylor’s blog here, and add Rhys to your awesome astronomy Google+ circles here. And you can find out more about IC 1101 in the video below from Tony Darnell, aka DeepAstronomy:

Researchers Send Mars Some Radar Love

A radar map of Mars’ major volcanic regions created by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (John Harmon et al., NAIC)

Even though we currently have several missions exploring Mars both from orbit and on the ground, there’s no reason that robots should be having all the fun; recently a team of radio astronomers aimed the enormous 305-meter dish at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory at Mars, creating radar maps of the Red Planet’s volcanic regions and capturing a surprising level of detail for Earth-based observations.

The team, led by John Harmon of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, bounced radar waves off Mars from Arecibo’s incredibly-sensitive dish, targeting the volcanic Tharsis, Elysium, and Amazonis regions. Depolarized radar imagery best reveals surface textures; the rougher and less uniform a surface is, the brighter it appears to radar while smooth, flat surfaces appear dark.

What the radar maps portray are very bright — and therefore rough — areas on most of the major volcanoes, although some regions do appear dark, such as the summit of Pavonis Mons.

This likely indicates a covering by smoother, softer material, such as dust or soil. This is actually in line with previous observations of the summit of Pavonis Mons made with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which showed the summit to appear curiously soft-edged and “out-of-focus”, creating a blurry optical illusion of sorts.

It’s thought that the effect is the result of the build-up of dust over millennia, carried across the planet by dust storms but remaining in place once settled because the Martian wind is just so extremely thin — especially at higher altitudes.

The team also found bright areas located away from the volcanoes, indicating rough flows elsewhere, while some smaller volcanoes appeared entirely dark — again, indicating a possible coating of smooth material like dust or solidified lava flows.

The resolution of the radar maps corresponds to the wavelength of the signals emitted from Arecibo; the 12.6 centimeter signal allows for surface resolution of Mars of about 3 km.

The team’s paper was published in the journal Icarus on July 25. Read more on the Red Planet Report here.

The iconic 305-meter radar telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico