Arecibo Observatory Scientists Help Unravel Surprise Asteroid Mystery

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

When asteroid 2019 OK suddenly appeared toward Earth on July 25, 2019, Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin and the team at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico swung into action.

After receiving an alert, the radar scientists focused on the asteroid, which was coming from Earth’s blind spot – solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to get as many radar readings as possible. She was traveling so fast, it was the whole time she had him in Arecibo’s crosshairs. UCF manages the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a cooperation agreement.

The asteroid made headlines because it appeared to come out of nowhere and was traveling fast.

The Zambrano-Marin findings were published in the Planetary Sciences Journal June 10th, just weeks before the world observes Asteroid Day, which is June 30th and promotes global awareness to help educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” says Zambrano-Marin, a planetary scientist at UCF. “No one saw it until it was practically passing, so when we got the alert, we had very little time to act. Even so, we were able to capture a lot of valuable information.”

It turns out that the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and was moving rapidly. It was spinning in 3-5 minutes. This means it is part of only 4.2% of known fast-spinning asteroids. This is a growing group that researchers say needs more attention.

The data indicate that the asteroid is likely either a C-type, which is composed of clay and silicate rocks, or an S-type, which is composed of silicate and nickel-iron. C-type asteroids are among the most common and some of the oldest in our solar system. Type S is the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is now inspecting the data collected through the Arecibo Planetary Radar database to continue his research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team can access the existing database that spans four decades. Science operations continue in the space and atmospheric sciences, and the team is retrofitting 12-meter antennas to continue astronomy research.

“We can use new data from other observatories and compare it with observations we’ve made here over the last 40 years,” says Zambrano-Marin. “Radar data not only helps confirm information from optical observations, it can also help us identify physical and dynamic features, which in turn can give us insights into appropriate deflection techniques if they are needed to protect the planet.”

There are nearly 30,000 known asteroids according to the Center for Near Earth Studies, and while few pose an immediate threat, there is a chance that one of significant size could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. That’s why NASA maintains surveillance and a system to detect and characterize objects as soon as they are found. NASA and other space agency nations are launching missions to explore near-Earth asteroids to better understand what they are made of and how they move in anticipation of having to deflect a course to Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF physics professor Pegasus Humberto Campins, is returning to Earth with a sample of asteroid Bennu, which has given scientists some surprises. Bennu was first observed at Arecibo in 1999. A new mission – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission – aims to demonstrate the ability to redirect an asteroid using the kinetic energy of a projectile. The spacecraft was launched in November 2021 and is expected to hit its target – the asteroid Dimorphos – on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of the Arecibo team are working to provide the scientific community with more information about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to help devise contingency plans.


The largest asteroid to approach Earth in 2022 will pass our planet this week


More information:
Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin et al, Radar and Optical Characterization of Near-Earth Asteroid 2019 OK, The Journal of Planetary Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.3847/PSJ/ac63cd

Provided by the University of Central Florida

Quote: Arecibo Observatory Scientists Help Unravel Mystery of Surprise Asteroid (2022, June 23) Recovered June 24, 2022 at https://phys.org/news/2022-06-arecibo-observatory-scientists-unravel -asteroid.html

This document is subject to copyright. Other than any fair dealing for purposes of study or private research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. The content is provided for informational purposes only.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: