Astronomers Measure Sunlight’s Shove

The physical force of sunlight on a moving asteroid has been measured by NASA scientists, providing information on how to better plot these Earth-passing worlds’ future paths.

First proposed by a 19-century Russian engineer, the Yarkovsky effect is the result of an object in space absorbing radiation from the Sun and emitting it as heat, thus creating a slight-but-measurable change in its movement (thanks to Newton’s first law of motion.)

By observing the 1999, 2005 and 2011 close passes of asteroid 1999 RQ36 with the Arecibo and Goldstone radar telescopes, astronomers were able to determine how much the trajectory of the half-kilometer-wide asteroid had changed.

The researchers’ findings revealed that RQ36 shifted by 160 km – about 100 miles – over the course of those 12 years. That deviation is attributed to the Yarkovsky effect. A miniscule force in and of itself, over time it has the ability to move entire worlds (albeit relatively small ones.)

“The Yarkovsky force on 1999 RQ36 at its peak, when the asteroid is nearest the Sun, is only about a half ounce — about the weight of three grapes on Earth,” said Steven Chesley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena “Meanwhile, the mass of the asteroid is estimated to be about 68 million tons. You need extremely precise measurements over a fairly long time span to see something so slight acting on something so huge.”

Using measurements of the distance between the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and RQ36 during its latest pass in 2011 – a feat that was compared by team leader Michael Nolan to “measuring the distance between New York City and Los Angeles to an accuracy of two inches” – Chesley and his team were able to calculate all the asteroid’s near-Earth approaches closer than 7.5 million km (4.6 million miles) from the years 1654 to 2135. 11 such passes were found.

In addition, observation of 1999 RQ36 with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found it to have about the same density as water – that’s light, for an asteroid.

Most likely, RQ36 is a “rubble-pile” form of asteroid, composed of a conglomeration of individual chunks of material held together by gravity.

These findings will be used by NASA scientists to help fine-tune the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2016 to rendezvous with 1999 RQ36 and return samples to Earth in 2023. Being a loose collection of rocks is expected to aid in the spacecraft’s sample retrieval process.

The findings were presented on May 19 at the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 2012 meeting in Niigata, Japan. Read more here.

(Top image: series of radar images of asteroid 1999 RQ36 were obtained by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif. on Sept 23, 1999. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA Prepares for Asteroid’s Close Pass by Earth

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On Tuesday, November 8, at 6:28 p.m. EST, an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier will soar past our planet at a distance closer than the Moon… and NASA scientists will be watching!

2005 YU55, a 400-meter (1,300-foot) -wide C-type asteroid, was discovered in December 2005 by Robert McMillan of the Spacewatch Program at the University of Arizona, Tucson. It’s pretty much spherical in shape and dark – darker than charcoal, in fact! Scientists with NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observation Program will begin tracking it on November 4 using the 70-meter radar telescope at the Deep Space Network in Goldstone, California , as well as with the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico beginning November 8. They will continue tracking 2005 YU55 through November 10.

Animation of 2005 YU55's trajectory on Nov. 8. (NASA/JPL) Click to play.

YU55’s orbit is well understood by scientists. It has come this way before, and although this is the closest it’s come to Earth in at least two centuries it will still be at least 324,600 kilometers (201,700 miles) away at nearest approach. That’s about 85% of the distance to the Moon.

It will approach from the sunward side, making viewing in visible light difficult until after it’s made its closest pass.

Other than the excitement it will most likely cause amongst radar astronomers, 2005 YU55 will have no physical effect on our planet. (There have been some rumors circulating online about this particular asteroid’s upcoming pass, in regards to earthquakes and tidal fluctuations and atmospheric disturbances and other such nonsense… the bottom line is that, like the ill-fated comet Elenin, 2005 YU55 has never been known to pose any threat to Earth.)

“YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over, at the very least, the next 100 years,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. “During its closest approach, its gravitational effect on the Earth will be so miniscule as to be immeasurable. It will not affect the tides or anything else.”

The 70m telescope at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California's Mojave Desert. (NASA/JPL)

Scientists are very eager though to have a prime opportunity to study this quarter-mile-wide world as it makes its closest pass. The giant telescopes at Goldstone and Arecibo will bounce radar waves off the asteroid, mapping its size and shape, and hopefully obtain some very high-resolution images.

“Using the Goldstone radar operating with the software and hardware upgrades, the resulting images of YU55 could come in with resolution as fine as 4 meters per pixel. We’re talking about getting down to the kind of surface detail you dream of when you have a spacecraft fly by one of these targets.”

– Lance Benner, JPL radio astronomer

Even though YU55 will remain at a safe distance the event is still quite notable. The last time an object this large came so close to Earth was in 1976… and scientists weren’t even aware of it at the time. Luckily we now have programs like the Near-Earth Objects Observations Program – a.k.a. “Spaceguard” –  to identify asteroids like this, hopefully in time to know if they could become a danger to our planet in either the near or distant future.

As of now, no large space rock with Earth’s name on it has been positively identified… but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing out there either. We need to keep diligent, keep looking and, above all, keep funding programs like this. If anything, this pass should serve as a reminder – however harmless – that we certainly are not alone in the solar system!

Read more on the NASA/JPL press release here.

UPDATE: NASA will be holding a live Q&A on 2005 YU55 and other near-Earth objects on November 1 at 2:30 p.m. PDT (5:30 p.m. EDT)… watch live here.