Awaiting an Asteroid's Close Approach
“On November 8, asteroid 2005 YU55 will fly past Earth and at its closest approach point will be about 325,000 kilometers [201,700 miles] away,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This asteroid is about 400 meters [1,300 feet] wide -- the largest space rock we have identified that will come this close until 2028.”
Despite the relative proximity and size, Yeomans said, “YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over, at the very least, the next 100 years. 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.”
“While near-Earth objects of this size have flown within a lunar distance in the past, we did not have the foreknowledge and technology to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Barbara Wilson, a scientist at JPL. “When it flies past, it should be a great opportunity for science instruments on the ground to get a good look.”
2005 YU55 was discovered in December 2005 by Robert McMillan, head of the NASA-funded Spacewatch Program at the University of Arizona, Tucson. The space rock has been in astronomers’ crosshairs before. In April 2010, Mike Nolan and colleagues at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico generated some ghostly images of 2005 YU55 when the asteroid was about 2.3 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) from Earth (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2010-144).
“The best resolution of the radar images was 7.5 meters [25 feet] per pixel,” said JPL radar astronomer Lance Benner. “When 2005 YU55 returns this fall, we intend to image it at 4-meter resolution with our recently upgraded equipment at the Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. Plus, the asteroid will be seven times closer. We’re expecting some very detailed radar 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,” said Benner. “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.”
At that resolution, JPL astronomers can see boulders and craters on the surfaces of some asteroids, and establish if an asteroid has a moon or two of its own. (Note: the 2010 Arecibo imaging of YU55 did not show any moons). But beyond the visually intriguing surface, the data collected from Goldstone, Arecibo, and ground-based optical and infrared telescopes are expected to detail the mineral composition of the asteroid. Such information can provide clues about the early solar system and the potential role of asteroids in the origin of life on the early Earth.
“This is a C-type asteroid, and those are thought to be representative of the primordial materials from which our solar system was formed,” said Wilson. “This flyby will be an excellent opportunity to test how we study, document and quantify which asteroids would be most appropriate for a future human mission.”
Yeomans reiterated Wilson’s view that the upcoming pass of asteroid 2005 YU55 will be a positive event, which he describes as an “opportunity for scientific discovery.” Yeomans adds, “So stay tuned. This is going to be fun.”