Half Comet-Half Asteroid a Fluke? Nope

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Back in 1996, astronomers discovered a strange object in the asteroid belt. They decided it was either a “lost” comet or an icy asteroid, as it ejected dust like a comet but had an orbit like an asteroid. No one had ever seen anything like the object, called 133P. Ever since it was found, astronomers have wondered if it was just an oddity — one of a kind. We now know it is not, and the discovery of more of these half asteroids/half comets means there is a new class of objects in our solar system.

One of these new objecst, 176P/LINEAR is also emitting dust as it orbits in the asteroid belt. It was found by Henry Hsieh at Queen’s University, Belfast in Northern Ireland. Hsieh has been working to figure out the unusual behavior of 133P. He hypothesized that either one of two things could explain the existence of the comet-asteroid: “(1.) 133P is a classical comet from the outer solar system that has evolved onto a main-belt orbit, or (2.) 133P is a dynamically ordinary main-belt asteroid on which subsurface ice has recently been exposed,” Hsieh wrote in his paper. “If (1) is correct, the expected rarity of a dynamical transition onto an asteroidal orbit implies that 133P could be alone in the main belt. In contrast, if (2) is correct, other icy main-belt objects should exist and could also exhibit cometary activity.”

Hsieh thought it was unlikely a comet could have been kicked around enough to end up in orbit in the asteroid belt, so he followed the assumption that 133P was a dynamically ordinary, yet icy main-belt asteroid. He set out to prove the hypothesis that 133P-like objects should be common and could be found by an well-designed observational survey.

Hsieh made 657 observations of 599 asteroids in the asteroid belt and found 176P/LINEAR. He also determined the asteroid is partially made of ice, which is being ejected following a collision with another object, thus the comet-like attributes.

Additionally, since there is evidence for past and even present water in main-belt asteroids, Hsieh says statistically there should be around 100 currently active Main Belt Comets (MBCs) as these objects are called, among the kilometer-scale, low-inclination, outer belt asteroid population.

The Technology Review blog offered suggestions for what to name these new objects that are half comet and half asteroid: “Comsteroids? Asteromets? Hsiehroids?”

Hseih’s paper,
Hseih’s website on MBCs
Sources: Technology Review Blog, arXiv

Keep Track of NEOs with New “Asteroid Watch” Website

With the recent impact on Jupiter, a lot of people out there have asteroids on their mind and wonder if one could possibly hit Earth. Now, NASA and JPL have a new website called “Asteroid Watch” which will keep everyone updated if any object approaches Earth. They’ve also created an Asteroid Watch Twitter account that Tweet updates on NEOs, plus there’s a downloadable widget as well.

“The goal of our Web site is to provide the public with the most up-to-date and accurate information on these intriguing objects,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL.

“This innovative new Web application gives the public an unprecedented look at what’s going on in near-Earth space,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near-Earth Objects Observation program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Information is garnered from surveys and missions that detect and track asteroids and comets passing close to Earth. The Near-Earth Object Observation Program, commonly called “Spaceguard,” also plots the orbits of these objects to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

There’s also another non-NASA Twitter feed called lowflyingrocks that lets you know about every Near Earth Object that passes within 0.2AU of Earth.

Source: JPL

How Big is Apophis?

Question: How Big is Apophis?

Answer: In case you haven’t heard, Asteroid 99942 Apophis is a near Earth asteroid that astronomers think will make a close flyby to the Earth in 2029. When its trajectory was first calculated back in 2004, it had one of the closest visits to Earth astronomers had seen, and had a 2.7% chance of hitting the Earth.

But follow-up observations brought that risk down to 1 in 45,000. Right now, astronomers think that Apophis is essentially no risk to the Earth. In April, 2008 media reported that a 13-year old German student had caught a math mistake made by NASA, and the risk of an Earth strike was actually 1-45. This later turned out to be a hoax.

Because of its close approach to Earth, space advocacy societies, including the Planetary Society think that the Apophis asteroid would make an ideal target for a human mission, and allow engineers to test out strategies for moving asteroids away from dangerous Earth-crossing orbits.

So back to the original question, how big is Apophis? The best estimate puts it at 270 meters (885 feet across), and it has a mass of 2.1 x 1010 kg. To give you a sense of scale, the Eiffel Tower in Paris is 324 meters tall.

But now you know its mass and size, you’re probably wondering: what would happen to the Earth if it struck? NASA estimated that a strike by Apophis would release the equivalent of 880 megatons of energy. Just as a comparison, the object that carved out Meteor Crater in Arizona probably released 3-10 megatons of energy.

If Apophis struck land, it would flatten thousands of square km of land, killing millions of people if it hit a densely populated area. But it wouldn’t cause the kinds of long term climate destruction that 1 km and larger asteroids can do. If it hit an ocean, it would create devastating tsunamis in all directions.

Here’s an article explaining techniques that might be used to move an asteroid. And here’s NASA’s official page on Apophis.

1-in-75 Chance Of Tunguska-Size Impact On Mars

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A 164-foot (50 meter) wide asteroid will be crossing the orbit of Mars at the end of January 2008. Currently, there is a 1-in-75 chance of the “Mars Crosser” hitting the Red Planet, and if it does, the 30,000 mile per hour speeding mass would generate a three megaton explosion (approximately the size of the terrestrial Tunguska impact over Siberia in 1908) and create a crater half-a-mile wide somewhere north of Meridiani Planum. So, the Mars Rover Opportunity will get a ringside seat should this once-in-a-thousand-year event occur…

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California reported this month that a known Near Earth Asteroid (NEO) will be crossing the path of Mars on January 30, 2008. This puts asteroid “2007 WD5” in a special group of asteroids: “Mars Crossers“. NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program (or “Spaceguard” program) is intended to track asteroids that come close to the orbit of Earth, but also provides data for any asteroids tracked near our planetary neighbors.

Scientists are both excited and concerned by the possibility of an impact on Mars. Whilst this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe an impact of this size on Mars (remember the excitement at Shoemaker-Levy hitting Jupiter in 1994?), this event would eject millions of tons of dust into the Mars atmosphere, interfering with the Mars Expedition Rovers, and hindering orbital imaging of the planet. The Phoenix mission (currently en-route) will undoubtedly be affected. Looking far into the future, this event could have serious consequences for manned exploration.

“Right now asteroid 2007 WD5 is about half-way between the Earth and Mars and closing the distance at a speed of about 27,900 miles per hour […] Over the next five weeks, we hope to gather more information from observatories so we can further refine the asteroid’s trajectory,” – Don Yeomans, manager of the NEO Office at JPL.

Although the odds are low, and the asteroid is expected to miss Mars by 30,000 km, asteroid hunters will be keeping a close eye on the progress of 2007 WD5 as it barrels closer and closer to the Red Planet and our robotic explorers.

Source: Near Earth Object Program