Awesome New Radar Images of Asteroid 2004 BL86


New video of 2004 BL86 and its moon

Newly processed images of asteroid 2004 BL86 made during its brush with Earth Monday night reveal fresh details of its lumpy surface and orbiting moon. We’ve learned from both optical and radar data that Alpha, the main body, spins once every 2.6 hours. Beta (the moon) spins more slowly.

The images were made by bouncing radio waves off the surface of the bodies using NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.  Radar “pinging” reveals information about the shape, velocity, rotation rate and surface features of close-approaching asteroids. But the resulting images can be confusing to interpret. Why? Because they’re not really photos as we know it.

For one, the moon appears to be revolving perpendicular to the main body which would be very unusual. Most moons orbit their primary approximately in the plane of its equator like Earth’s moon and Jupiter’s four Galilean moons. That’s almost certainly the case with Beta. Radar imagery is assembled from echoes or radio signals returned from the asteroid after bouncing off its surface. Unlike an optical image, we see the asteroid by reflected pulses of radio energy beamed from the antenna. To interpret them, we’ll need to put on our radar glasses.

Bright areas don’t necessarily appear bright to the eye because radar sees the world differently. Metallic asteroids appear much brighter than stony types; rougher surfaces also look brighter than smooth ones.  In a sense these aren’t pictures at all but graphs of the radar pulse’s time delay, Doppler shift and intensity that have been converted into an image.

Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory
Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory

In the images above, the left to right direction or x-axis in the photo plots the toward and away motion or Doppler shift of the asteroid. You’ll recall that light from an object approaching Earth gets bunched up into shorter wavelengths or blue-shifted compared to red-shifted light given off by an object moving away from Earth. A more rapidly rotating object will appear larger than one spinning slowly. The moon appears elongated probably because it’s rotating more slowly than the Alpha primary.

Meanwhile, the up and down direction or y-axis in the images shows the time delay in the reflected radar pulse on its return trip to the transmitter. Movement up and down indicates a change in 2004 BL86’s distance from the transmitter, and movement left to right indicates rotation. Brightness variations depend on the strength of the returned signal with more radar-reflective areas appearing brighter. The moon appears quite bright because – assuming it’s rotating more slowly – the total signal strength is concentrated in one small area compared to being spread out by the faster-spinning main body.

If that’s not enough to wrap your brain around, consider that any particular point in the image maps to multiple points on the real asteroid. That means no matter how oddly shaped 2004 BL86 is in real life, it appears round or oval in radar images. Only multiple observations over time can help us learn the true shape of the asteroid.

You’ll often notice that radar images of asteroids appear to be lighted from directly above or below. The brighter edge indicates the radar pulse is returning from the leading edge of the object, the region closest to the dish. The further down you go in the image, the farther away that part of the asteroid is from the radar and the darker it appears.

Imagine for a moment an asteroid that’s either not rotating or rotating with one of its poles pointed exactly toward Earth. In radar images it would appear as a vertical line!

If you’re curious to learn more about the nature of radar images, here are two great resources:

How Radio Telescopes Get “Images” of Asteroids by Emily Lakdawalla
* Goldstone Solar System Radar Observatory: Earth-Based Planetary Mission Support and Unique Science Results

Close Passing Asteroid 2013 ET Gets Its Picture Taken

Another space rock sat pretty for NASA’s big dish photographer. The 70-meter (230-feet) Goldstone antenna zinged radio waves at 2013 ET on March 10 when the asteroid flew by Earth at 2.9 lunar distances or about 693,000 miles (1.1 million km).

By studying the returned echoes, astronomers pieced together 18 images of a rugged, irregular-shaped object about 130 feet (40 m) across. Radar measurements of an asteroid’s distance and speed nail down its orbit with great accuracy, enabling scientists to predict whether or not  it might become a danger to the planet at a future date.

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
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

It’s also the only way outside of a sending a spacecraft to the object of seeing a small asteroid’s shape and surface features. Most optical telescopes cannot resolve asteroids as anything more than points of light.

By convention, radar images appear “lit” from above. That’s the side closest to the antenna. As you examine a radar image from top to bottom, distance from the antenna increases and the asteroid fades. If the equator of the asteroid faces the antenna, it will appear brightly illuminated at the top of the image. If the antenna faces one of the poles, the pole will be on top and lit up. It takes a bit of getting used to.

Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The asteroid’s width in the images depends on the asteroid’s rotation rate and the antenna’s perspective. If the antenna stares directly down over the equator and the asteroid rotates rapidly, the images will be stretched from Doppler-shifting of the returned radar echo.

Radio waves are a form of light just like the familiar colors of the rainbow. If radio light is moving toward you, its waves bunch together more tightly and appear slightly bluer than if they were at rest. Astronomers call this a Doppler shift or blueshift.  If they’re moving away, the light waves get stretched and become “redshifted”.

Three views of asteroid 4179 Toutatis made in early Dec. 2012 by Goldstone. In all three, distance from the antenna increases from top to bottom and Doppler frequency increases toward the right, indicating Toutatis rotates from right to left, since that's the side of the asteroid approaching the observer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Three views of asteroid 4179 Toutatis made in early Dec. 2012 by Goldstone. In all three, distance from the antenna increases from top to bottom and Doppler frequency increases toward the right, indicating Toutatis rotates from right to left, since that’s the side of the asteroid approaching the observer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A slow-rotating asteroid will appear narrower to radar eyes, and if it doesn’t rotate at all, will show up as a “spike” of light. When the antenna happens to be point directly at a pole, the asteroid will appear to be rotating neither toward nor away from the observer and also look like a spike.

Most asteroids fall somewhere in between, and their radar portraits are close to their true shapes. Radar images show us surface textures, shape, size, rotation rate and surface features like craters. 2013 ET joins the ranks of numerous asteroids probed by radio waves from Earth as we try to grasp the complexity of our planetary neighborhood while hoping for we don’t stare down cosmic disaster anytime soon.