Awaiting an Asteroid’s Close Approach
|This radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 was generated from data taken in April of 2010 by the Arecibo Radar Telescope in Puerto Rico. Image: NASA/Cornell/Arecibo|
Since the dawn of the space age, humanity has sent 16 robotic emissaries to fly by some of the Solar System’s most intriguing and nomadic occupants — comets and asteroids. The data and imagery collected on these deep-space missions of exploration have helped redefine our understanding of how Earth and our part of the galaxy came to be. But this fall, Mother Nature is giving scientists around the world a close-up view of one of her good-sized space rocks — no rocket required.
“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.”
|Animation of the trajectory for asteroid 2005 YU55 – November 8-9, 2011. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech|
Then why all the hubbub for a space rock a little bit wider than an aircraft carrier? After all, scientists estimate that asteroids the size of YU55 come this close about every 25 years.
“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.”
|This painting depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. The aftermath of this immense asteroid collision, which occurred approximately 65 million years ago, is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species on Earth. Credit: Donald E. Davis|
Radar astronomy employs the world’s most massive dish-shaped antennas. The antennas beam directed microwave signals at their celestial targets — which can be as close as our Moon and as far away as the moons of Saturn. These signals bounce off the target, and the resulting “echo” is collected and precisely collated to create radar images, which can be used to reconstruct detailed three-dimensional models of the object. This defines its rotation precisely and gives scientists a good idea of the object’s surface roughness. They can even make out surface features.
“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.”