Meet Asteroid 2017 BQ6 — A Giant, Spinning Brick

 

This composite of 25 images of asteroid 2017 BQ6 was generated with radar data collected using NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert. It sped by Earth on Feb. 7 at a speed of around  25,560 mph (7.1 km/s) relative to the planet. The images have resolutions as fine as 12 feet (3.75 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

To radar imager Lance Benner at JPL in Pasadena, asteroid 2017 BQ6 resembles the polygonal dice used in Dungeons and Dragons. But my eyes see something closer to a stepping stone or paver you’d use to build a walkway. However you picture it, this asteroid is more angular than most imaged by radar.

It flew harmlessly by Earth on Feb. 7 at 1:36 a.m. EST (6:36 UT) at about 6.6 times the distance between Earth and the moon or some about 1.6 million miles. Based on 2017 BQ6’s brightness, astronomers estimate the hurtling boulder about 660 feet (200 meters) across. The recent flyby made for a perfect opportunity to bounce radio waves off the object, harvest their echoes and build an image of giant space boulder no one had ever seen close up before.

NASA’s 70-meter antennas are the largest and most sensitive Deep Sky Network antennas, capable of tracking a spacecraft traveling tens of billions of miles from Earth. This one at Goldstone not only tracked Voyager 2’s Neptune encounter, it also received Neil Armstrong’s famous communication from Apollo 11: “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” Credit: JPL-Caltech/GSSR

The images of the asteroid were obtained on Feb. 6 and 7 with NASA’s 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California and reveal an irregular, angular-appearing asteroid:

Animation of 2017 BQ6. The near-Earth asteroid has a rotation period of about 3 hours. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

“The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons.”

2017 BQ6 was discovered on Jan. 26 by the NASA-funded Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) Project, operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the Air Force Space Command’s Space Surveillance Telescope at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

Radar has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids. Even through very large telescopes, 2017 BQ6 would have appeared exactly like a star, but the radar technique reveals shape, size, rotation, roughness and even surface features.

This chart shows how data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has led to revisions in the estimated population of near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To create the images, Benner conducted a controlled experiment on the asteroid, transmitting a signal with well-known characteristics to the object and then, by comparing the echo to the transmission, deduced its properties. According to NASA’s Asteroid Radar Research site, measuring how the echo power spreads out over time along with changes in its frequency caused by the Doppler Effect (object approaching or receding from Earth), provide the data to construct two-dimensional images with resolutions finer than 33 feet (10 meters) if the echoes are strong enough.

This orbital diagram shows the close approach of 2017 BQ6 to Earth on Feb. 7, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL Horizons

In late October 2016, the number of known near-Earth asteroids topped 15,000 with new discoveries averaging about 30 a week. A near-Earth asteroid is defined as a rocky body that approaches within approximately 1.3 times Earth’s average distance to the Sun. This distance then brings the asteroid within roughly 30 million miles (50 million km) of Earth’s orbit. To date, astronomers have already discovered more than 90% of the estimated number of the large near-Earth objects  or those larger than 0.6 miles (1 km). It’s estimated that more than a million NEAs smaller than 330 feet (100 meters) lurk in the void. Time to get crackin’.

Ride Along with New Horizons on its Pluto Flyby

On July 14, 2015, after nine and a half years journeying across the Solar System, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its historic close pass of Pluto and its moon Charon. Traveling a relative velocity of nearly 13.8 km/s (that’s almost 31,000 mph!) New Horizons passed through the Pluto system in a matter of hours but the views it captured from approach to departure held the world spellbound with their unexpected beauty. Those images and data – along with a bit of imagination – have been used by space imaging enthusiast Björn Jónsson to create an animation of New Horizons’ Pluto pass as if we were traveling along with the spacecraft – check it out above.

You can find more science images and discoveries about Pluto and Charon from New Horizons here, and see more renderings and animations by Jónsson on his website here.

Pluto’s Time to Shine Just Hours Away – A Guide and Timetable

Countdown to discovery! Not since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989 have we flung a probe into the frozen outskirts of the Solar System. Speeding along at 30,800 miles per hour New Horizons will pierce the Pluto system like a smartly aimed arrow. 

Pluto as seen from New Horizons on July 11, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Newest view of Pluto seen from New Horizons on July 11, 2015 shows a world that continues to grow more fascinating and look stranger every day. See annotated version below.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
On July 11, 2015, New Horizons captured a world that is growing more fascinating by the day. For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Rotating into view is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14. The annotated version includes a diagram indicating Pluto’s north pole, equator, and central meridian. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Rotating into view is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14. The annotated version includes a diagram indicating Pluto’s north pole, equator, and central meridian.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Edging within 7,800 miles of its surface at 7:49 a.m. EDT, the spacecraft’s long-range telescopic camera will resolve features as small as 230 feet (70 meters). Fourteen minutes later, it will zip within 17,930 miles of Charon as well as image Pluto’s four smaller satellites — Hydra, Styx, Nix and Kerberos.

This image shows New Horizons' current position (3 p.m. EDT July 12) along its planned Pluto flyby trajectory. The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled; the red indicates the spacecraft's future path. The Pluto is tilted up like a target because the planet's axis is tipped 123° to the plane of its orbit. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This image shows New Horizons’ current position (3 p.m. EDT July 12) along its planned Pluto flyby trajectory. The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled; the red indicates the spacecraft’s future path. The Pluto system is tilted on end because the planet’s axis is tipped 123° to the plane of its orbit. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

After zooming past, the craft will turn to photograph Pluto eclipsing the Sun as it looks for the faint glow of rings or dust sheets illuminated by backlight. At the same time, sunlight reflecting off Charon will faintly illuminate Pluto’s backside. What could be more romantic than Charonshine?

Six other science instruments will build thermal maps of the Pluto-Charon pair, measure the composition of the surface and atmosphere and observe Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind. All of this will happen autopilot. It has to. There’s just no time to send a change instructions because of the nearly 9-hour lag in round-trip communications between Earth and probe.

Instruments New Horizons will use to characterize Pluto are REX (atmospheric composition and temperature; PEPSSI (composition of plasma escaping Pluto's atmosphere); SWAP (solar wind); LORRI (close up camera for mapping, geological data); Star Dust Counter (student experiment measuring space dust during the voyage); Ralph (visible and IR imager/spectrometer for surface composition and thermal maps and Alice (composition of atmosphere and search for atmosphere around Charon). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Instruments New Horizons will use to characterize Pluto are REX (atmospheric composition and temperature); PEPSSI (composition of plasma escaping Pluto’s atmosphere); SWAP (solar wind studies); LORRI (close up camera for mapping, geological data); Star Dust Counter (student experiment measuring space dust during the voyage); Ralph (visible and IR imager/spectrometer for surface composition and thermal maps) and Alice (composition of atmosphere and search for atmosphere around Charon). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Want to go along for the ride? Download and install NASA’s interactive app Eyes on Pluto and then click the launch button on the website. You’ll be shown several options including a live view and preview. Click preview and sit back to watch the next few days of the mission unfold before your eyes.

American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1903 from Lowell Observatory. Tombaugh died in 1997, but an ounce of his ashes, affixed to the spacecraft in a 2-inch aluminum container. "Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's 'third zone.' Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia's husband, Annette and Alden's father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997)"
American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 from Lowell Observatory. Tombaugh died in 1997, but an ounce of his ashes, affixed to the spacecraft in a 2-inch aluminum container. “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone.’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997)”

Like me, you’ve probably wondered how daylight on Pluto compares to that on Earth. From 3 billion miles away, the Sun’s too small to see as a disk with the naked eye but still wildly bright. With NASA’s Pluto Time, select your city on an interactive map and get the time of day when the two are equal. For my city, daylight on Pluto equals the gentle light of early evening twilight six minutes after sunset. An ideal time for walking, but step lightly. In Pluto’s gentle gravity, you only weigh 1/15 as much as on Earth.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its inclined orbit are highlighted among the hundreds of thousands of icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. Credit: NASA

New Horizons is the first mission to the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. This region also is known as the “third” zone of our solar system, beyond the inner rocky planets and outer gas giants. Pluto is its most famous member, though not necessarily the largest. Eris, first observed in 2003, is nearly identical in size. It’s estimated there are hundreds of thousands of icy asteroids larger than 61 miles (100 km) across along with a trillion comets in the Belt, which begins at 30 a.u. (30 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) and reaches to 55 a.u.

During its fleeting flyby, New Horizons will slice across the Pluto system, turning this way and that to photograph and gather data on everything it can. Crucial occultations are shown that will be used to determine the structure and composition of Pluto’s (and possibly Charon’s) atmosphere. Credit: NASA with additions by the author
During its fleeting flyby, New Horizons will slice across the Pluto system, turning this way and that to photograph and gather data on everything it can. Crucial occultations are shown that will be used to determine the structure and composition of Pluto’s (and possibly Charon’s) atmosphere. Sunlight reflected from Charon will also faintly illuminate Pluto’s backside. Credit: NASA with additions by the author

Below you’ll find a schedule of events in Eastern Time. (Subtract one hour for Central, 2 hours for Mountain and 3 hours for Pacific). Keep in mind the probe will be busy shooting photos and gathering data during the flyby, so we’ll have to wait until Wednesday July 15 to see the the detailed close ups of Pluto and its moons. Even then, New Horizons’ recorders will be so jammed with data and images, it’ll take months to beam it all back to Earth.

Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. The annotated version includes a diagram showing Charon’s north pole, equator, and central meridian, with the features highlighted. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
A new photo of Charon, too! Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. The annotated version includes a diagram showing Charon’s north pole, equator, and central meridian, with the features highlighted. The prominent crater is about 60 miles (96 km) across; the chasms appear to be geological faults. 
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Fasten your seat belts — we’re in for an exciting ride.

We’ll be reporting on results and sharing photos from the flyby here at Universe Today, but you’ll also want to check out NASA’s live coverage on NASA TV, its website and social media.

Monday, July 13
10:30 a.m. to noon – Media briefing on mission status and what to expect broadcast live on NASA TV

Tuesday, July 14
7:30 to 8 a.m. – Arrival at Pluto! Countdown program on NASA TV

At approximately 7:49 a.m., New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 km) above the surface, after a journey of more than 9 years and 3 billion miles. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.

The moment of closest approach will be marked during a live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.

8 to 9 a.m. – Media briefing, image release on NASA TV

Wednesday, July 15

3 to 4 p.m. – Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; live on NASA TV and release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

We’ll have the latest Pluto photos for you, but you can also check these excellent sites:

* Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) archive
Pluto Photojournal
* New Horizons science photo gallery

Need more Pluto? Spend a few minutes watching this excellent New York Times mission documentary.

Cassini to Perform Its Final Flyby of Hyperion

On Sunday, May 31, the Cassini spacecraft will perform its last close pass of Hyperion, Saturn’s curiously spongelike moon. At approximately 9:36 a.m. EDT (13:36 UTC) it will zip past Hyperion at a distance of about 21,000 miles (34,000 km) – not its closest approach ever but considerably closer (by 17,500 miles/28,160 km) than it was when the image above was acquired.*

This will be Cassini’s last visit of Hyperion. It will make several flybys of other moons within Saturn’s equatorial plane over the course of 2015 before shifting to a more inclined orbit in preparation of the end phase of its mission and its operating life in 2017.

At 255 x 163 x 137 miles (410 x 262 x 220 km) in diameter, Hyperion is the largest of Saturn’s irregularly-shaped moons. Researchers suspect it’s the remnant of a larger body that was blown apart by an impact. Hyperion’s craters appear to have a “punched-in” look rather than having been excavated, and have no visible ejecta or secondary craters nearby.

Impactors tend to make craters by compressing the surface material, rather than blasting it out. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Edit by J. Major.)
Impacts on Hyperion tend to “punch in” the surface material, rather than blasting it out. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Edit by J. Major.)

Hyperion orbits Saturn in an eccentric orbit at a distance of over 920,000 miles (1.48 million km)…that’s almost four times the distance our Moon is from us! This distance – as well as constant gravitational nudges from Titan – prevents Hyperion from becoming tidally locked with Saturn like nearly all of its other moons are. In fact its rotation is more of haphazard tumble than a stately spin, making targeted observations of any particular regions on its surface virtually impossible.

Images from the May 31 flyby are expected to arrive on Earth 24 to 48 hours later.

As small as it is Hyperion is Saturn’s eighth-largest moon, although it appears to be very porous and has a density half that of water. Read more about Hyperion here and see more images of it from Cassini here and here.

Source: NASA

*Cassini did come within 310 miles (500 km) of Hyperion on Sept. 26, 2005, but the images to make up the view above were acquired during approach.

UPDATE June 1, 2015: the raw images from Cassini’s flyby have arrived on Earth, check out a few below. (Looks like Cassini ended up with the same side of Hyperion again!)

Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)
Hyperion on May 31, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. (Minor editing by J. Major.)

Rosetta to Snuggle Up to Comet 67P for Closest Encounter Yet

Who doesn’t like to snuggle up with their Valentine on Valentine’s Day? Rosetta will practically whisper sweet nothings into 67P’s ear on February 14 when it swings just 3.7 miles (6 km) above its surface, its closest encounter yet.

Rosetta had been orbiting the comet at a distance of some  16 miles (26 km) but beginning yesterday, mission controllers used the spacecraft’s thrusters to change its orbit in preparation for the close flyby.  First, Rosetta will move out to a distance of roughly 87 miles (140 km) from the comet this Saturday before swooping in for the close encounter at 6:41 a.m. CST on Feb. 14. Closest approach happens over the comet’s larger lobe, above the Imhotep region.

The relative position of Rosetta with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko at the moment of closest approach this Valentine's Day when the spacecraft will pass just 3.7 miles (6 km) above the comet’s large lobe. Credit: ESA/C.Carreau
The relative position of Rosetta with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko at the moment of closest approach this Valentine’s Day when the spacecraft will pass just 3.7 miles (6 km) above the comet’s large lobe. Credit: ESA/C.Carreau with additions by the author

The close encounter will provide opportunities for Rosetta’s science instruments to photograph 67P’s surface at high resolution across a range of wavelengths as well as get a close sniff of what’s inside its innermost coma or developing atmosphere. Scientists will also be looking closely at the outflowing gas and dust to see how it evolves during transport from the comet’s interior to the coma and tail.

As Rosetta swoops by its view of the comet will continuously change. Instruments will collect data on how 67P’s dust grains reflect light across a variety of orbital perspectives – from shadowless lighting with the Sun at the orbiter’s back to slanted lighting angles –  to learn more about its properties.

The Imhotep region of comet 67P features a large, relatively smooth region. Rosetta will make high resolutions of Imhotep during its close flyby. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
The Imhotep region of comet 67P features a large, relatively smooth region and a smattering of large boulders. Rosetta will make high resolutions of Imhotep during its close flyby. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

“After this close flyby, a new phase will begin, when Rosetta will execute sets of flybys past the comet at a range of distances, between about 15 km (9 miles) and 100 km (62 miles),” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager.

During some of the close flybys, Rosetta trajectory will be almost in step with the comet’s rotation, allowing the instruments to monitor a single point on the surface in great detail as it passes by.


Helpful animation of how ESA mission controllers are changing Rosetta’s orbit to ready the probe for the Valentine’s Day flyby.

Perihelion, when the comet arcs closest to the Sun at a distance of 115.6 million miles (186 million km), occurs on August 13. Activity should be reaching its peak around that time. Beginning one month before, the Rosetta team will identify and closely examine one of the comet’s jets in wickedly rich detail.

“We hope to target one of these regions for a fly-through, to really get a taste of the outflow of the comet,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

Yum, yum. Can’t wait for that restaurant review!

Big Asteroid 2004 BL86 Buzzes Earth on January 26: How to See it in Your Telescope

A lot of asteroids pass near Earth every year. Many are the size of a house, make close flybys and zoom out of the headlines. 2004 BL86 is a bit different. On Monday evening January 26th, it will become the largest asteroid to pass closest to Earth until 2027 when 1999 AN10 will approach within one lunar distance.

Big is good. 2004 BL86 checks in at 2,230 feet (680-m) wide or nearly half a mile. Add up its significant size and relatively close approach – 745,000 miles (1.2 million km) – and something wonderful happens. This newsy space rock is expected to reach magnitude +9.0, bright enough to see in a 3-inch telescope or even large binoculars.

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Click to see an animation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will safely pass by the Earth on January 26th. Closest approach occurs around 10 a.m (CST) that day. The asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Click to see an animation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a rare opportunity then to see an Earth-approaching asteroid so easily. All you need is a good map as 2004 BL86 will be zipping along at two arc seconds per second or two degrees (four Moon diameters) per hour. That means you’ll see it move in real time like a slow satellite inching its way across the sky. Cool!

As you can see from its name, 2004 BL86 was discovered 11 years ago in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR), an MIT Lincoln Laboratory program to track near-Earth objects  funded by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. As of September 15, 2011, the search has swept up 2,423 new asteroids and 279 new comets.

Map showing the hourly progress of 2004 BL86 Monday evening January 26th as it treks across Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. Stars are shown to magnitude +9. The number at the tick marks show the time (CST) each hour starting at 6 p.m., then 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and so on. Click for a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
Map showing the hourly progress of 2004 BL86 Monday evening January 26th as it treks across Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. Stars are shown to magnitude +9. Numbers at the tick marks show the time (CST) each hour starting at 6 p.m., then 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and so on. Click for a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

All asteroids with well-known orbits receive a number. The first asteroid, 1 Ceres, was discovered in 1801. The 4,150th asteroid, 4150 Starr and named for the Beatles’ Ringo Starr, was found in 1984. 2004 BL86 will likely be the highest-numbered asteroid any of us will ever see. How does 357,439 sound to you?

Some observers prefer a black on white map for tracking asteroids and deep sky objects. Click to view a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
Some observers prefer a black on white map for tracking asteroids and deep sky objects. Click to view a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

Observers in the Americas, Europe and Africa will have the best seats for viewing the asteroid, which will shine brightest between 7 p.m. and midnight CST from a comfortably high perch in Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. The half-moon will also be out but over in the western sky, so shouldn’t get in the way of seeing our speedy celeb.

Not only will 2004 BL86 pass near a few fairly bright stars but the Beehive Cluster (M44) will temporarily gain a new member between 11 p.m. and midnight as the asteroid buzzes across the well-known star cluster.

“Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, who’s retiring as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after 16 years in the position.

More detailed map showing the hourly position of the asteroid through central Cancer. Stars plotted to magnitude +9.5. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
More detailed map showing the hourly position of the asteroid through central Cancer. Stars plotted to magnitude +9.5. Click to get a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

To learn more about the space rock and acquire close-ups of its surface, NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will attempt to ping the asteroid with microwaves to create radar-generated images of the asteroid during the days surrounding its closest approach to Earth.

“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner of JPL, principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations of the asteroid. “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”

NASA's Deep Space Network will be watching during 2004 BL86's flyby Monday Jan. 26. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Deep Space Network will be watching during 2004 BL86’s flyby Monday Jan. 26. Credit: NASA

While 2004 BL86 will be brightest Monday night, that’s not the only time amateur astronomers might see it. It comes into view for southern hemisphere observers around magnitude +13 on Jan. 24 and leaves the scene at a similar brightness high in the northeastern sky in the northern hemisphere on the 29th. If you use a star-charting program like Starry Night, Guide, MegaStar and others, you can get updated orbital element packages HERE.  Just select your program and download the Observable Unusual Minor Planets file. Open it in your software and create maps for the entire apparition.

One last observing tip before you go your own way. Close asteroids will sometimes be a little bit off a particular track depending on your location. Not much but enough that I recommend you scan not just the single spot where you expect to see it but also nearby in the field of view. If you see a “star” on the move – that’s it.

As always, Dr. Gianluca Masi, Italian astrophysicist, will share his live coverage of the event beginning at 1:30 p.m. (19:30 UT) Jan. 26th.

Let us know if you see our not-so-little cosmic friend. Good luck!

A Compendium of Universe Today Comet Siding Spring Articles: January 2013 – October 2014

We present here a compendium of Universe Today articles on comet Siding Spring. Altogether 18 Universe Today stories and counting have represented our on-going coverage of a once in a lifetime event. The articles beginning in February 2013, just days after its discovery, lead to the comet’s penultimate event – the flyby of Mars, October 19, 2014. While comet Siding Spring will reach perihelion just 6 days later, October 25, 2014, it will hardly have sensed the true power and impact that our Sun can have on a comet.

Siding Spring’s Oort Cloud cousin, Comet ISON in November 2013 encountered the Sun at a mere 1.86 million km. The intensity of the Sun’s glare was 12,600 times greater than what Siding Spring will experience in a few days. Comet ISON did not survive its passage around the Sun but Comet Siding Spring will soon turn back and begin a very long journey to its place of origin, the Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto.

An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)
An animation of comet Siding Springs passage through the inner Solar System. The scale size of its place of origin would dwarf the orbits of the Solar System to little more than a small dot. (Illustration Credit: Near-Earth Object (NEO) office, NASA/JPL)

The closest approach for comet Siding Spring with the Sun – perihelion is at a distance of 1.39875 Astronomical Units (1 AU being the distance between the Earth and Sun), still 209 million km (130 million miles). The exact period of the comet is not exactly known but it is measured in millions of years. In my childhood astronomy book, it stated that comet Halley, when it is at its furthest distance from the Sun, is moving no faster than a galloping horse. This has also been all that comet Siding Spring could muster for millions of years – the slightest of movement in the direction of the Sun.

It is only in the last 3 years, out all the millions spent on its journey, that it has felt the heat of the Sun and been in proximity to the  planetary bodies of our Solar System. This is story of all long period comets. A video camera on Siding Spring would have recorded the emergence and evolution of one primate out of several, one that left the trees to stand on two legs, whose brain grew in size and complexity and has achieved all the technological wonders (and horrors) we know of today.

Now with its close encounter with Mars, the planet’s gravity will bend the trajectory of the comet and reduce its orbital period to approximately one million years. No one will be waiting up late for its next return to the inner Solar System.

It is also unknown what force in the depths of the Oort cloud nudged the comet into its encounter with Mars and the Sun. Like the millions of other Oort cloud objects, Siding Spring has spent its existence – 4.5 Billion years, in the darkness of deep space, with its parent star, the Sun, nothing more than a point of light, the brightest star in its sky. The gravitational force that nudged it may have been a passing star, another cometary body or possibly a larger trans-Neptunian object the size of Pluto and even as large as Mars or the Earth.

The forces of nature on Earth cause a constant turning over geological features. Our oceans and atmosphere are constantly recycling water and gases. The comets that we receive from the Oort Cloud are objects as old as our Solar System. Yet it is the close encounter with Mars that has raised the specter of an otherwise small ordinary comet. All these comets from deep space are fascinating gems nearly unaltered for 1/3rd of the time span of the known Universe.

Universe Today’s Siding Spring Compendium

2014/10/17: Here’s A Look At Comet Siding Spring Two Days Before Its Encounter With Mars

2014/10/17: Weekly Space Hangout Oct 17 2014

2014/10/15: Comet A1 Siding Spring vs Mars Views In Space And Time

2014/10/10: How To See Comet Siding Spring As It Encounters Mars

2014/10/08: Comet Siding Spring Close Call For Mars Wake Up Call For Earth

2014/09/19: How NASA’s Next Mars Spacecraft Will Greet The Red Planet On Sunday

2014/09/09: Tales Tails Of Three Comets

2014/09/05: Maven Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised To Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition Exclusive Interview With Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

2014/08/30: Caterpillar Comet Poses For Pictures En Route To Mars

2014/07/26: NASA Preps For Nail Biting Comet Flyby Of Mars

2014/05/08: Interesting Prospects For Comet A1 Siding Spring Versus The Martian Atmosphere

2014/03/27: Mars Bound Comet Siding Spring Sprouts Multiple Jets

2014/01/29: Neowise Spots Mars Crossing Comet

2014/01/02: Comets Prospects For 2014 A Look Into The Crystal Ball

2013/04/12: New Calculations Effectively Rule Out Comet Impacting Mars In 2014

2013/03/28: NASA Scientists Discuss Potential Comet Impact On Mars

2013/03/05: Update On The Comet That Might Hit Mars

2013/02/26: Is A Comet On A Collision Course With Mars

Amateur Images Show Juno’s ‘Slingshot’ Around Earth Was a Success

With the government shutdown, news out of NASA is sometimes sparse. But thankfully amateur astronomers can fill in some of the holes! While Juno’s project manager Rick Nybakken has confirmed that the spacecraft successfully completed its slingshot flyby of Earth yesterday, images taken by amateur astronomers around the world also conclusively confirm that Juno is now “bang on target!” tweeted Nick Howes of the Remanzacco Observatory team. This image from Howes, Ernesto Guido and Martino Nicolini shows the path of Juno across the sky, as seen from a remote telescope in Spain. “The spacecraft is trailed in the image due to its fast speed,” the team wrote on their website, and extrapolations of Juno’s orbit shows it is heading straight for Jupiter.

You can see a gallery of images of Juno’s flyby taken by amateurs on this SpaceWeather.com page.

Meanwhile, there are some concerns about the spacecraft going into safe mode immediately after the flyby. Our previous article by Ken Kremer reported that the mission teams are assessing the situation, and that the spacecraft is “power positive.”

One idea of why the spacecraft went into safe mode is that the battery was being depleted faster than anticipated, but the team is still working to confirm the reason.

Closest approach was at 12:21 PM PST (19:21 UTC, 3:21 PM EDT).

For more information about the flyby, check out this new video from Bill Nye the Science Guy — who has a new video series called “Why With Nye.”

Juno's flyby path, via Heaven's Above.
Juno’s flyby path, via Heaven’s Above.

Could Juno’s Path Near Earth Uncover A Flyby Mystery?

Every so often, engineers send a spacecraft in Earth’s general direction to pick up a speed boost before heading elsewhere. But sometimes, something strange happens — the spacecraft’s speed varies in an unexpected way. Even stranger, this variation happens only during some Earth flybys.

“We detected the flyby anomaly during Rosetta’s first Earth visit in March 2005,” stated Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at the European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

“Frustratingly, no anomaly was seen during Rosetta’s subsequent Earth flybys in 2007 and 2011. This is a real cosmic mystery that no one has yet figured out.”

The phenomenon has been noticed in several spacecraft (both from ESA and NASA) since 1990. NASA’s NEAR asteroid spacecraft in January 1998 had the largest change, of 13 millimeters (0.5 inches) a second. The smallest variations, with NASA’s Saturn-bound Cassini in 1999 and Mercury-pointing MESSENGER in 2005, were below the threshold of measurement.

ESA won’t even speculate on what’s going on. “The experts are stumped,” the agency says in a press release.

Those experts, however, do have some ideas on how to track that down. ESOC plans to watch Juno’s flyby using a 35 meter deep-space dish in Malargüe, Argentina, as well as a 15-meter dish in Perth, Australia

“The stations will record highly precise radio-signal information that will indicate whether Juno speeds up or slows down more or less than predicted by current theories,” ESA states.

What do you think is going on? Let us know in the comments!

Source: European Space Agency

A Parting Look at 2012 DA14: Was This a Warning Shot from Space?

Just as anticipated, on Friday, Feb. 15, asteroid 2012 DA14 passed us by, zipping 27,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) above Earth’s surface — well within the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that ring our world. Traveling a breakneck 28,100 km/hr (that’s nearly five miles a second!) the 50-meter space rock was a fast-moving target for professional and amateur observers alike. And even as it was heading away from Earth DA14 was captured on camera by a team led by MIT researcher Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz using the 2.1-meter telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, AZ. The team’s images are shown above as an animated gif (you may need to click the image to play it.)

This object’s close pass, coupled with the completely unexpected appearance of a remarkably large meteor in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the morning of the same day, highlight the need for continued research of near-Earth objects (NEOs) — since there are plenty more out there where these came from.

“Flybys like this, particularly for objects smaller than 2012 DA14, are not uncommon. This one was special because we knew about it well in advance so that observations could be planned to look at how asteroids are effected by the Earth’s gravity when they come so close.”

– Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz, MIT

The animation shows 2012 DA14 passing inside the Little Dipper, crossing an area about a third the size of the full Moon in 45 minutes. North is to the left.

(For a high-resolution version of the animation, click here.)

Exterior of the 2.1-meter telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (NOAO)
Exterior of the 2.1-meter telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

According to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which operates the Kitt Peak Observatory, Dr. Moskovitz’ NSF-supported team “are analyzing their data to measure any changes in the rotation rate of the asteroid after its close encounter with the Earth. Although asteroids are generally too small to resolve with optical telescopes, their irregular shape causes their brightness to change as they rotate. Measuring the rotation rate of the asteroid in this way allows the team to test models that predict how the earth’s gravity can affect close-passing asteroids. This will lead to a better understanding of whether objects like 2012 DA14 are rubble piles or single solid rocks.

“This is critical to understanding the potential hazards that other asteroids could pose if they collide with the Earth.”

So just how close was DA14’s “close pass?” Well, if Earth were just a few minutes farther along in its orbit, we would likely be looking at images of its impact rather than its departure.*

Although this particular asteroid isn’t expected to approach Earth so closely at any time in the foreseeable future — at least within the next 130 years — there are lots of such Earth-crossing objects within the inner Solar System… some we’re aware of, but many that we’re not. Identifying them and knowing as many details as possible about their orbits, shapes, and compositions is key.

Even this soon after the Feb. 15 flyby observations of 2012 DA14 have provided more information on its orbit and characteristics., allowing for fine-tuning of the data on it.

According to the Goldstone Radar Observatory web page, the details on 2012 DA14 are as follows:
Semimajor axis                   1.002 AU
Eccentricity                          0.108
Inclination                           10.4 deg
Perihelion distance           0.893 AU
Aphelion distance              1.110 AU
Absolute magnitude (H)   24.4
Diameter                               ~50 meters (+- a factor of two)
Rotation period                   ~6 h  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Pole direction                      unknown
Lightcurve amplitude        ~1 mag  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Spectral class                       Ld  (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)

Goldstone is currently conducting radar observations on the asteroid. A radar map of its surface and motion is anticipated in the near future.

Read more about Dr. Moskovitz’ observations on the NOAO website here, and see more images of 2012 DA14 captured by astronomers around the world in our previous article.

A bright meteor witnessed over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 (RussiaToday)
A bright daytime meteor witnessed over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 (RussiaToday)

Also, in an encouraging move by international leaders in the field, during the fiftieth session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, currently being held from at the United Nation Office in Vienna, near-Earth objects are on the agenda with a final report to be issued by an Action Team. Read the report PDF here.

*According to astronomer Phil Plait, while the orbits of Earth and DA14 might intersect at some point, on the 15th of February 2013 the asteroid slipped just outside of Earth’s orbit — a little over 17,000 miles shy. “It was traveling one way and the Earth another, so they could not have hit each other on this pass no matter where Earth was in its orbit,” he wrote in an email. Still, 17,000 miles is a very close call astronomically, and according to Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, it “will one day hit us, like the one in Russian [sic] last night.” When? We don’t know yet. That’s why we must keep watching.