A 500-Meter-Long Asteroid Flew Past Earth, and Astronomers Were Watching

This collage shows six planetary radar observations of 2011 AG5 a day after the asteroid made its close approach to Earth on Feb. 3. With dimensions comparable to the Empire State Building, 2011 AG5 is one of the most elongated asteroids to be observed by planetary radar to date. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An asteroid the size of the Empire State Building flew past Earth in early February, coming within 1.8 million km (1.1 million miles) of our planet. Not only is it approximately the same size as the building, but astronomers found the asteroid – named 2011 AG5 — has an unusual shape, with about the same dimensions as the famous landmark in New York City.

“Of the 1,040 near-Earth objects observed by planetary radar to date, this is one of the most elongated we’ve seen,” said Lance Benner, principal scientist at JPL who helped lead the observations, in a JPL press release.

This extremely elongated asteroid has a length-to-width ratio of 10:3.

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How Long is a Day on Venus? We Finally Know the Exact Answer

According to a new study, microbial life could exist in Venus' cloud tops, where temperature and pressure conditions are favorable. Credit: NASA

Venus, aka. Earth’s “Sister Planet,” has always been shrouded in mystery for astronomers. Despite being planet Earth’s closest neighbor, scientists remained ignorant of what Venus’ surface even looked like for well into the 20th century, thanks to its incredibly dense and opaque atmosphere. Even in the age of robotic space exploration, its surface has been all but inaccessible to probes and landers.

And so the mysteries of Venus have endured, not the least of which has to do with some of its most basic characteristics – like its internal mass distribution and variations in the length of a day. Thanks to observations conducted by a team led from UCLA, who repeatedly bounced radar off the planet’s surface for the past 15 years, scientists now know the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis, and the size of its core.

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Surprise! Earth Passing Asteroid 1998 QE2 Has a Moon

Radar images from May 30, 2012 of Asteroid 1998 QE2, showing its binary companion. Credit: NASA.

Late yesterday, NASA turned the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California towards Asteroid 1998 QE2 as it was heading towards its closest approach to Earth, and they got a big surprise: the asteroid is a binary system. 1998 QE2 itself is 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) in diameter, and the newly found orbiting moon is about 600 meters in diameter.

The radar images were taken were taken on May 29, 2013, when the asteroid was about 3.75 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Earth.

“Radar really helps to pin down the orbit of an asteroid as well as the size of it,” said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program office, speaking during a JPL webcast about this asteroid on May 30. “We now know our size estimates were pretty good, but finding it was a binary was surprising.”

NASA said that about 16 percent of asteroids are binary or even triple systems.

Each of the images above are snippets of about 5 minutes of radar data. You can watch a movie of the data, below:

Other surprises were several radar-dark features, which may be cavities or impact craters, said Marina Brozovic, a scientist at JPL. The asteroid is also rotating more slowly than originally thought.

Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 285263 (1998 QE2) will pass 5.86 million km from the Earth on Friday, May 31st at 20:59 Universal Time (UT) or 4:59PM EDT. This is the closest approach of 1998 QE2 for this century, and it poses no threat – and there’s not any threat in the future – as it is passing over 15 times as distant as the Earth’s Moon. But the rather large size of this space rock makes it an object of interest for astronomers.

Chodas added that they will continue to take radar data of this asteroid while they can to improve its orbital parameters, and that the presence of the moonlet means they can get an even more precise mass estimate of the asteroid.

Want to try and see this asteroid for yourself? Our very own David Dickinson has written a great “how-to” for this object, but you are going to need a fairly large backyard telescope, since it will be about 100 times fainter than what can be seen with the naked eye, even at closest approach.

The Slooh online telescope will have views of online tomorrow, which you can watch at their website. The webcast will start at 20:30 UTC (4:30 p.m. EDT) on Friday, May 31.

Also, starting at 20:00 UTC (4:00 p.m. EDT), astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will have a webcast from the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy.

Additionally, if you want to have a Bruce Willis-type view of this asteroid, check out NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System. They have a special feature on this asteroid, and you can “ride along with it for the next few days,” said Doug Ellison, Visualization Producer at JPL, speaking during the webcast.

This amazing tool creates realistic simulated views based on real data, and allows you to travel to any planet, moon or spacecraft across time and space, in 3D and in real time — or speed up to see the future.

Just go to the Eyes on the Solar System website, and when the window opens, click on “Tours and Features” in the upper right hand corner, then click on “1998 QE2” in the dropdown box, and away you go. If you click on the “Live” button the left, you’ll see the current location; click on “Ride Along” and find yourself sitting on the asteroid heading towards Earth.

At the bottom control panel “dock” (click on the bottom box on the lower right side if the panel isn’t showing), you can speed up time and see how far from Earth this asteroid will get and where it will go in the future.

Ellison added that right now the imagery on Eyes on the Solar System doesn’t have the moonlet orbiting 1998 QE2, but they will be adding it soon to make the visualization as realistic as possible.

NASA’s @AsteroidWatch Twitter account shared the news about the moon:

Also, if you want more asteroids, on Friday May 31, the White House is hosting an asteroid-themed “We the Geeks” Google+ Hangout starting at 2 p.m. EDT.

The live video conference will feature Bill Nye the Science Guy, former astronaut Ed Lu, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, and Peter Diamandis, co-founder of asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. They will discuss identification, resource potential and threat of asteroids. Here’s the link the White House’s Google+ page.

NASA’s KaBOOM Experimental Asteroid Radar Aims to Thwart Earth’s Kaboom

Installation of new KaBOOM asteroid detection radar dish antenna system at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Over the past month, about a half dozen rather large asteroids have careened nearby our home planet and in one case caused significant injury and property damage with no forewarning – showcasing the hidden lurking dangers from lackluster attitudes towards Asteroid Detection & Planetary Defense.

Now in a prescient coincidence of timing, NASA is funding an experimental asteroid radar detection array called ‘KaBOOM’ that may one day help thwart Earth’s untimely Ka-boom – and which I inspected first-hand this past week at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC),following the SpaceX Falcon 9 blastoff for the ISS.

“KaBOOM takes evolutionary steps towards a revolutionary capability,” said Dr. Barry Geldzahler, KaBOOM Chief Scientist of NASA Headquarters, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

If successful, KaBOOM will serve as a prelude to a US National Radar Facility and help contribute to an eventual Near Earth Object (NEO) Planetary Defense System to avert Earth’s demise.

“It will enable us to reach the goal of tracking asteroids farther out than we can today.”

First some background – This weekend a space rock the size of a city block whizzed past Earth at a distance of just 2.5 times the distance to our Moon. The asteroid – dubbed 2013 ET – is noteworthy because it went completely undetected until a few days beforehand on March 3 and measures about 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter.

KaBOOM experimental asteroid radar array at KSC consists of three 12 meter wide dish antennas mounted on pedestals at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
KaBOOM experimental asteroid radar array at KSC consists of three 12 meter wide dish antennas mounted on pedestals at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

2013 ET follows close on the heels of the Feb. 15 Russian meteor that exploded violently with no prior warning and injured over 1200 people on the same day as Asteroid 2012 DA 14 zoomed past Earth barely 17,000 miles above the surface – scarcely a whisker astronomically speaking.

Had any of these chunky asteroids actually impacted cities or other populated areas, the death toll and devastation would have been absolutely catastrophic – potentially hundreds of billions of dollars !

Taken together, this rash of uncomfortably close asteroid flybys is a wake-up call for a significantly improved asteroid detection and early warning system. KaBOOM takes a key step along the path to those asteroid warning goals.

KaBOOM asteroid radar under construction near alligator infested swamps at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
KaBOOM asteroid radar under construction near alligator infested swamps at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

‘KaBOOM’ – the acronym stands for ‘Ka-Band Objects Observation and Monitoring Project’ – is a new test bed demonstration radar array aimed at developing the techniques required for tracking and characterizing Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) at much further distances and far higher resolution than currently available.

“The purpose of KaBOOM is to be a ‘proof of concept’ using coherent uplink arraying of three widely spaced antennas at a high frequency; Ka band- 30 GHz,” KaBOOM Chief Scientist Geldzahler told me.

Currently the KaBOOM array consists of a trio of 12 meter wide radar antennas spaced 60 meters apart – whose installation was just completed in late February at a remote site at KSC near an alligator infested swamp.

I visited the array just days after the reflectors were assembled and erected, with Michael Miller, KaBOOM project manager of the Kennedy Space Center. “Ka Band offers greater resolution with shorter wavelengths to image smaller space objects such as NEO’s and space debris.”

“The more you learn about the NEO’s the more you can react.”

“This is a small test bed demonstration to prove out the concept, first in X-band and then in Ka band,” Miller explained. “The experiment will run about two to three years.”

Miller showed how the dish antennae’s are movable and can be easily slewed to different directions as desired.

“The KaBOOM concept is similar to that of normal phased arrays, but in this case, instead of the antenna elements being separated by ~ 1 wavelength [1 cm], they are separated by ~ 6000 wavelengths. In addition, we want to correct for the atmospheric twinkling in real time,” Geldzahler told me.

Why are big antennae’s needed?

“The reason we are using large antennas is to send more powerful radar signals to track and characterize asteroids farther out than we can today. We want to determine their size, shape, spin and surface porosity; is it a loose agglomeration of pebbles? composed of solid iron? etc.”

Such physical characterization data would be absolutely invaluable in determining the forces required for implementing an asteroid deflection strategy in case the urgent need arises.

How does KaBOOM compare with and improve upon existing NEO radars in terms of distance and resolution?

“Currently at NASA¹s Goldstone 70 meter antenna in California, we can track an object that is about 0.1 AU away [1 astronomical unit is the average distance between the Earth and the sun, 93 million miles, so 0.1 AU is ~ 9 million miles]. We would like to track objects 0.5 AU or more away, perhaps 1 AU.”

“In addition, the resolution achievable with Goldstone is at best 400 cm in the direction along the line of sight to the object. At Ka band, we should be able to reduce that to 5 cm – that’s 80 times better !”

“In the end, we want a high power, high resolution radar system,” Geldzahler explained.

Thumbs Up for Science & Planetary Defense !  Ken Kremer; Universe Today and Mike Miller; NASA KSC KaBOOM project manager. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Thumbs Up for Science & Planetary Defense !
Ken Kremer; Universe Today and Mike Miller; NASA KSC KaBOOM project manager. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Another significant advantage compared to Goldstone, is that the Ka radar array would be dedicated 24/7 to tracking and characterizing NEO’s and orbital debris, explained Miller.

Goldstone is only available about 2 to 3% of the time since it’s heavily involved in numerous other applications including deep space planetary missions like Curiosity, Cassini, Deep Impact, Voyager, etc.

‘Time is precious’ at Goldstone – which communicates with some 100 spacecraft per day, says Miller.

“If/when the proof of concept is successful, then we can envision an array of many more elements that will enable us to reach the goal of tracking asteroids farther out than we can today,” Geldzahler elaborated.

A high power, high resolution radar system can determine the NEO orbits about 100,000 times more precisely than can be done optically.

Lead KaBOOM scientist Barry Geldzahler ‘assists’ with dish antenna installation at the Kennedy Space Center; - I’m from Headquarters and I’m here to help’ - is Barry’s mantra.  Credit: NASA
Lead KaBOOM scientist Barry Geldzahler ‘assists’ with dish antenna installation at the Kennedy Space Center; – ‘I’m from Headquarters and I’m here to help’ – is Barry’s mantra. Credit: NASA/KSC

So – what are the implications for Planetary Defense ?

“If we can track asteroids that are up to 0.5 AU rather than 0.1 AU distant, we can track many more than we can track today.”

“This will give us a better chance of finding potentially hazardous asteroids.”

“If we were to find that a NEO might hit the Earth, NASA and others are exploring ways of mitigating the potential danger,” Geldzahler told me.

Kaboom’s ‘First light’ is on schedule for late March 2013.

More in Part 2

Ken Kremer

Asteroid Toutatis Tumbles in New Video from NASA

NASA has compiled the radar images taken of Asteroid Toutatis during its flyby of Earth this week to create a short movie, which shows the asteroid slowly tumbling. The 64-frame movie was generated from data gathered on December 12 and 13, 2012 by NASA’s 70-meter Goldstone Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California.

NASA provides more information about the video and (4179) Toutatis:

On Dec. 12, the day of its closest approach to Earth, Toutatis was about 18 lunar distances, 4.3 million miles (6.9 million kilometers) from Earth. On Dec. 13, the asteroid was about 4.4 million miles (7 million kilometers), or about 18.2 lunar distances.

The radar data images of asteroid Toutatis indicate that it is an elongated, irregularly shaped object with ridges and perhaps craters. Along with shape detail, scientists are also seeing some interesting bright glints that could be surface boulders. Toutatis has a very slow, tumbling rotational state. The asteroid rotates about its long axis every 5.4 days and precesses (changes the orientation of its rotational axis) like a wobbling, badly thrown football, every 7.4 days.

The orbit of Toutatis is well understood. The next time Toutatis will approach at least this close to Earth is in November of 2069, when the asteroid will safely fly by at about 7.7 lunar distances, or 1.8 million miles (3 million kilometers). An analysis indicates there is zero possibility of an Earth impact over the entire interval over which its motion can be accurately computed, which is about the next four centuries.

This radar data imagery will help scientists improve their understanding of the asteroid’s spin state, which will also help them understand its interior.

The resolution in the image frames is 12 feet (3.75 meters) per pixel.

Source: NASA