Astronomers Practice Responding to a Killer Asteroid”

Beyond the Earth-Moon system, thousands of asteroids known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are known to exist. These rocks periodically cross Earth’s orbit and make close a flyby of Earth. Over the course of millions of years, some even collide with the Earth, causing mass extinctions. Little wonder then why NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is dedicated to monitoring the larger objects that occasionally come close to our planet.

One of these objects is 2012 TC4, a small and oblong-shaped NEO that was first spotted in 2012 during a close flyby of Earth. During its most recent flyby – which took place on Thursday, October 12th,2017 – an international team of astronomers led by NASA scientists used the opportunity to conduct the first international exercise to test global responses to an impending asteroid strike.

This exercise was known as the “TC4 Observation Campaign“, which began this past July and concluded with the asteroid flyby. It all began when astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to recover 2012 TC4. When the asteroid made its final close approach to Earth in mid-October, it passed Earth by at a distance of 43,780 km (27,200 mi).

Diagram showing 2012 TC4’s heliocentric orbit, which has changed due to the 2012 and 2017 close encounters with Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The goal of this exercise was simple: recover, track and characterize a real asteroid as if it were likely to collide with Earth. In addition, the exercise was an opportunity to test the International Asteroid Warning Network, which conducts observations of potentially hazardous asteroids, attempts to model their behavior, make predictions, and share these findings with institutions around the world.

On Oct. 12th, TC4 flew by Earth at roughly 0.11 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. In the months leading up to the flyby, astronomers from the US, Canada, Columbia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa tracked TC4 from the ground. At the same time, space-based telescopes studied the asteroid’s orbit, shape, rotation and composition.

Detlef Koschny is the co-manager of the Near-Earth Object segment in the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Space Situational Awareness program. As he was quoted in a recent NASA press release:

“This campaign was an excellent test of a real threat case. I learned that in many cases we are already well-prepared; communication and the openness of the community was fantastic. I personally was not prepared enough for the high response from the public and media – I was positively surprised by that! It shows that what we are doing is relevant.”

Asteroid 2012 TC4 appears as a dot at the center of this composite of 37 individual 50-second exposures obtained on Aug. 6, 2017 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Based on their observations, scientists at CNEOS – which is located at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – were able to determine all the necessary characteristics of TC4. This included its precise orbit, the distance it would pass by Earth on Oct. 12th, and discern if there was any possibility of a future impact. As Davide Farnocchia, a member of CNEOS who led the effort to determine the asteroid’s orbit, explained:

“The high-quality observations from optical and radar telescopes have enabled us to rule out any future impacts between the Earth and 2012 TC4. These observations also help us understand subtle effects such as solar radiation pressure that can gently nudge the orbit of small asteroids.”

Multiple observatories also dedicated their optical telescopes to studying how fast TC4 rotates. As Eileen Ryan – the director of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, which conducted observations of the asteroids rotation – indicated, “The rotational campaign was a true international effort. We had astronomers from several countries working together as one team to study TC4’s tumbling behavior.”

What they found that the small asteroid rotated slowly, which was rather surprising. Whereas small asteroids typically rotate very quickly, TC4 had a rotational period of just 12 minutes, and also appeared to be tumbling. Other observations revealed some interesting things about the shape of TC4.

The Green Bank Telescope, located in West Virginia. Credit: NRAO

These were conducted by astronomers using NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Network antenna in California, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory‘s Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Their reading helped refine size estimates of the asteroid, indicating that it is elongated and measures approximately 15 meters (50 ft) long and 8 meters (25 feet) wide.

Determining TC4’s composition was more challenging. Due to unfavorable weather conditions that coincided with the flyby, instruments like NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii were unable to get a good look at the asteroid. However, spectra was obtained on the asteroid that indicated that it has a rocky body, which means it is an S-type asteroids.

Typically, ground-based elements determine an asteroid’s composition based on their color. Whereas dark asteroids are known for being carbon-rich (C-type), bright asteroids are predominantly composed of silicate minerals (S-type). As Lance Benner, who led the radar observations at JPL, explained:

“Radar has the ability to identify asteroids with surfaces made of highly reflective rocky or metallic materials. We were able to show that radar scattering properties are consistent with a bright rocky surface, similar to a particular class of meteorites that reflect as much as 50 percent of the light falling on them.”

In addition to the observation campaign, NASA used TC4’s latest flyby as an opportunity to test communications between observatories, as well as the internal messaging and communications system that is currently in place. This network connects various government agencies and the executive branch and would come into play in the event of a predicted impact emergency.

Asteroid 2012 TC4 projected flyby of the Earth-Moon system, which was calculated well before it took place. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who led the observation campaign, this aspect of the exercise “demonstrated that we could organize a large, worldwide observing campaign on a short timeline, and communicate results efficiently.”Michael Kelley, the TC4 exercise lead at NASA Headquarters in Washington, added,”We are much better prepared today to deal with the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid than we were before the TC4 campaign.”

Last, but not least, was the way the exercise brought scientists and institutions from all around the world together for a single purpose. As Boris Shustov – the science director for the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who was also part of the exercise – indicated, the exercise was an excellent way to test how the world’s scientific institutions would go about prepping for a possible asteroid impact:

“The 2012 TC4 campaign was a superb opportunity for researchers to demonstrate willingness and readiness to participate in serious international cooperation in addressing the potential hazard to Earth posed by NEOs. I am pleased to see how scientists from different countries effectively and enthusiastically worked together toward a common goal, and that the Russian-Ukrainian observatory in Terskol was able to contribute to the effort. In the future I am confident that such international observing campaigns will become common practice.”

In the event that a Near-Earth asteroid might actually pose a threat the Earth, it is good to know that all the tracking, monitoring and alert systems we have in place are in good working order. If we are going to trust the fate of human civilization (and possibly all life on Earth) to an advanced warning system, it just makes sense to have all the bugs worked out beforehand!

The TC4 Observation Campaign is sponsored by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which in turn is managed by the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading: NASA

Good News Everyone! There are Fewer Deadly Undiscovered Asteroids than we Thought

Beyond Earth’s orbit, there are innumerable comets and asteroids that are collectively known as Near-Earth Objects. On occasion, some of these objects will cross Earth’s orbit; and every so often, one will pass too close to Earth and impact on its surface. While most of these objects have been too small to cause serious damage, some have been large enough to trigger Extinction Level Events (ELEs).

For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have spent decades cataloging and monitoring the larger NEAs in order to determine if they might collide with Earth at some point in the future. The only question has been, how many remain to be found? According to a recent analysis performed by Alan W. Harris of MoreData! – a California-based research company – only a handful of NEAs haven’t been catalogued yet.

These findings were the subject of a presentation made this week at the 49th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Provo, Utah. As Harris indicated during the presentation, titled “The Population of Near-Earth Asteroids Revisited”, previous estimates of the remaining NEAs have been plagued by a consequential round-off error that have skewed the results.

Artist’s concept of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer as its orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL

The source of this error has to do with how organizations that monitor NEOs determine “size-frequency distribution”. Basically, estimates are given in terms of number versus brightness, since most discovery surveys were conducted in the visible spectrum. This is not a reliable way of determining size though, since asteroids don’t all have the same albedo (aka. reflectivity).

As such, NEA brightness is expressed in units of absolute magnitude (H), where lower numbers indicate brighter objects. The IAU Minor Planet Center – which is responsible for maintaining information on asteroid and other small-body measurements – rounds off the reported values of H to the nearest 0.1 magnitude. As Harris explained during the course of his presentation:

“So, for example, a bin from H of 17.5 to 18.0 is really from 17.55 to 18.05, or 17.45 to 17.95, depending on which side of the bin you take “less than or equal to” rather than ‘less than’.”

While this has not caused much in the way of problems in the past, it has become significant as far as assessments of how many larger objects remain to be found are concerned. Harris first became aware of the potential for problems this past year after Dr. Pasqual Tricario – a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute – conducted a study that produced estimates different from those obtained by Harris and Italian astronomer Germano D’Abramo two years before.

This graphic shows asteroids and comets observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/JHU

The 2015 study conducted by Harris and D’Abramo – which appeared in Icarus under the title “The population of near-Earth asteroids” – yielded an estimate of 990 NEAs that were larger than 1 km in diameter. However, Tricario’s study (“The near-Earth asteroid population from two decades of observations“, also published in Icarus), which was based on the opposite “less than or equal to” assumption, produced estimates that were 10% lower.

As Harris explained, this prompted D’Adramo and him to considered a different approach. “We corrected the problem for the current analysis by choosing bin boundaries at .05 magnitudes, e.g. 17.25 to 17.75, so the 0.1 round-off thresholds naturally put objects in the right bin,” he said. “When Tricarico and I each made these corrections, our population estimates fell into almost perfect agreement.”

After applying the correction, Harris and D’Abramo’s overall estimate of undiscovered NEAs dropped from 990 to 921 ± 20. Beyond allowing for consistency between different studies, these corrected estimates also reduced the total number of undiscovered objects that remain undiscovered. According to the latest tallies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 884 NEAs that are about 1 km in diameter have been discovered so far.

Based on the previous population estimate of 990 objects, this implied that the current surveys are 89% complete and 106 were yet to be found. When the corrections were applied to these numbers, JPL’s surveys now appears to be 96% complete, and only 37 objects remain to be found (almost three times less). Naturally, these new estimates depends on their own sets of assumptions, and different results can be obtained based on different criteria.

NASA is getting much better at discovering and detecting NEOs. Credit: NASA/NEO Program.

Still, a reduced estimate of undiscovered asteroids is definitely encouraging news. Especially when one considers how hazardous large asteroids are to the safety and well-being of life here on Earth. As of October 3rd, 2017, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) announced that there are a total of 157 potentially hazardous asteroids out there. Knowing that only a few more need to be found is bound to help some of us sleep at night!

Future studies are also expected to benefit from the deployment of next-generation missions. Thanks to the efforts of NASA’s Near-Earth-Object WISE (NEOWISE) mission, which looks for NEOs in the infrared band (rather than visible light), that number of known NEOs has increased substantially. With the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, those numbers are expected to reach even higher.

Between improvements in technology and methodology, a day may yet come when all Near-Earth Objects – be they big or small, potentially hazardous or harmless – are accounted for. Combined with asteroid defenses, like directed-energy beams or robots spacecraft capable of attaching themselves to asteroids and redirecting them, Extinction Level Events might very well become a thing of the past.

Further Reading: The Spaceguard Center

Nope, our Temporary Moon Isn’t Space Junk, it’s an Asteroid

In April of 2016, astronomers became aware of a distant object that appeared to be orbiting the Sun, but was also passing close enough to Earth that it could be periodically viewed using the most powerful telescopes. Since then, there has been ample speculation as to what this “Temporary Moon” could be, with most astronomers claiming that it is likely nothing more than an asteroid.

However, some suggested that it was a burnt-out rocket booster trapped in a near-Earth orbit. But thanks to new study by a team from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, this object – known as (469219) 2016 HO3 – has been confirmed as an asteroid. While this small near-Earth-asteroid orbits the Sun, it also orbits Earth as a sort of “quasi-satellite”.

The team that made this discovery was led by Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Their research was also made possible thanks to NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. This program is maintained by NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) and provides grants to institutions dedicated to the research of NEOs.

2016 HO3 is an asteroid that appears to orbit around Earth due to the mechanics of its peculiar orbit around the sun. Credit: NASA-JPL

The details of this discovery were presented this week at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences in Utah at a presentation titled “Ground-based Characterization of Earth Quasi Satellite (469219) 2016 HO3”. During the course of the presentation, Reddy and his colleagues described how they spotted the object using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) at the LBT Observatory on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona.

According to their observations, 2016 HO3 measures just 100 meters (330 feet) across and is the most stable quasi-satellite discovered to date (of which there have been five). Over the course of a few centuries, this asteroid remains at a distance of 38 to 100 lunar distances – i.e. the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Reddy explained in a UANews press statement, this makes the asteroid a challenging target:

“While HO3 is close to the Earth, its small size – possibly not larger than 100 feet – makes it challenging target to study. Our observations show that HO3 rotates once every 28 minutes and is made of materials similar to asteroids.”

Discovering the true nature of this object has also solved another big question – namely, where did 2016 HO3 come from? For those speculating that it might be space junk, it then became necessary to determine what the likely source of that junk was. Was it a remnant of an Apollo-era mission, or something else entirely? By determining that it is actually an NEO, Reddy and his team have indicted that it likely comes from the same place as other NEOs.

Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona’s Lunar Planetary Laboratory. Credit: Bob Demers/UANews

Reddy and his colleagues also indicated that 2016 HO3 reflected light off its surface in a way that is similar to meteorites that have been studied here on Earth. This was another indication that 2016 HO3 has similar origins to other NEOs (some of which have entered our atmosphere as meteors) which are generally asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity.

“In an effort to constrain its rotation period and surface composition, we observed 2016 HO3 on April 14 and 18 with the Large Binocular Telescope and the Discovery Channel Telescope,” Reddy said. “The derived rotation period and the spectrum of emitted light are not uncommon among small NEOs, suggesting that 2016 HO3 is a natural object of similar provenance to other small NEOs.”

But unlike other NEOs which periodically cross Earth’s orbit, “quasi-satellites” are distinguished by their rather unique orbits. In the case of 2016 HO3, it has an orbit that follows a similar path to that the Earth’s; but because it is not dominated by the Earth’s gravity, their two orbits are out of sync. This causes 2016 HO3 to make annual loops around the Earth as it orbits the Sun.

Artist’s impression of a hypothetical astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

Christian Veillet, one of co-authors of the presentation, is also the director of the LBT Observatory. As he explained, this characteristic could make “quasi-satellites” ideal targets for future NEO studies:

“Of the near-Earth objects we know of, these types of objects would be the easiest to reach, so they could potentially make suitable targets for exploration. With its binocular arrangement of two 8.4-meter mirrors, coupled with a very efficient pair of imagers and spectrographs like MODS, LBT is ideally suited to the characterization of these Earth’s companions.”

Similarly, their orbital characteristic could make “quasi-satellites” an ideal target for future space missions. One of NASA’s main goals in the coming decade is to send a crewed mission to a Near-Earth Object in order to test the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System. Such a mission would also help develop the necessary expertise for mounting missions deeper into space (i.e. to Mars and beyond).

The study of Near-Earth Objects is also of immense importance when it comes to determining how and where as asteroid might pose a threat to Earth. This knowledge allows for advanced warnings which can potentially save lives. It is also significant when it comes to the development of proposed counter-measures, several of which are currently being explored.

And be sure to enjoy this video of 2016 HO3’s orbit, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Further Reading: UANews

Large Near-Earth Asteroid Will Pass Earth by This September

Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.

More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!

To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.

Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 7 million km (4.4 million mi). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:

“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”

Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).

This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.

Artist’s rendition of how far Florence will pass by Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.

For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.

Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_orbit.mov

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_Earth_flyby.mov

Further Reading: NASA

NASA Says “No Chance” Small Asteroid Will Hit Earth On March 5th

On October 6th, 2013, the Catalina Sky Survey discovered a small asteroid which was later designated as 2013 TX68. As part Apollo group this 30 meter (100 ft) rock is one of many Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that periodically crosses Earth’s orbit and passes close to our planet. A few years ago, it did just that, flying by our planet at a safe distance of about 2 million km (1.3 million miles).

And according to NASA’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it will be passing us again in a few weeks time, specifically between March 2nd and 6th. Of course, asteroids pass Earth by on a regular basis, and there is very rarely any cause for alarm. However, there is some anxiety about 2013 TX68’s latest flyby, mainly because its distance could be subject to some serious variation.

Continue reading “NASA Says “No Chance” Small Asteroid Will Hit Earth On March 5th”