An asteroid, designated 2004 BL86, will safely pass about three times the distance of Earth to the moon on January 26. From its reflected brightness, astronomers estimate that the asteroid is about a third of a mile (0.5 kilometers) in size. The flyby of 2004 BL86 will be the closest by any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027.
At the time of its closest approach on January 26, the asteroid will be approximately 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth.
“Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, who is retiring as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after 16 years in the position. “And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.”
One way NASA scientists plan to learn more about 2004 BL86 is to observe it with microwaves (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2006-00a ). NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will attempt to acquire science data and radar-generated images of the asteroid during the days surrounding its closest approach to Earth.
“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner of JPL, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations of the asteroid. “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”
Asteroid 2004 BL86 was initially discovered on Jan. 30, 2004 by a telescope of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey in White Sands, New Mexico.
The asteroid is expected to be observable to amateur astronomers with small telescopes and strong binoculars.
“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” said Yeomans. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”
NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office is experiencing its first transition in leadership since it was formed almost 17 years ago. On Jan. 9, after a 39-year-long career at JPL, Yeomans retired. Paul Chodas, a long-time member of Yeomans’ team at JPL, has been designated as the new manager.
NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets using both ground- and space-based telescopes. Elements of the Near-Earth Object Program, often referred to as “Spaceguard,” discover these objects, characterize a subset of them and identify their close approaches to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.
JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Asteroid Detection and Science
They are the celestial equivalent of sonograms. But their hazy outlines and ghostly features do not document the in-vivo development of a future taxpayer. Instead, they chronicle the exo-planetary comings-and-goings of some of Earth’s least known, most nomadic, and at times most impactful neighbors.
They are radar echoes that are bounced off of asteroids. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and around the world rely on their ethereal images to tell some out-of-this-world tales of near-Earth objects.
“The standard ground-based tools for asteroid science require a night’s sky, and what you come away with in the end is an image of a dot,” said JPL radar astronomer Dr. Steve Ostro. “With radar astronomy, the sky at high noon is just as inviting as that at midnight, and without launching a full-blown space mission we can actually get valuable information about the physical makeup of these objects.”
In some respects, radar astronomy utilizes the same technology as your microwave oven. But do not bother to haul your glorified croissant warmer outside — it will just confuse the neighbors. Radar astronomy employs the world’s most massive dish-shaped antennas, which beam directed microwave signals at their targets, which can be as close as our moon and as far away as the moons of Saturn. These pulses bounce off the target, and the resulting “echo” is collected and precisely collated. The results can be astounding.
“The closer the target, the better the echo,” said Ostro. “From them we can generate detailed three-dimensional models of the object, define its rotation precisely and get a good idea of its internal density distribution. You can even make out surface features. A good echo can give us a spatial resolution finer than 10 meters.”
Radar astronomy has detected echoes from over 190 near-Earth asteroids to date and has found that, like snowflakes, no two are the same. The returning echoes have revealed both stony and metallic objects, some flying through the cold, dark reaches of space alone, while others have their own satellites. The data indicate that some asteroids have a very smooth surface, while others have very coarse terrain. And finally, their shapes are virtually anything that can be imagined.
One thing that does not have to be imagined is radar astronomy’s ability to nail down the location of an object in time and space. This invaluable capability came in handy in the winter of 2004 when JPL’s Near-Earth Object office was looking for a potentially hazardous asteroid called Apophis.
Discovered by astronomers using optical telescopes, Apophis quickly drew the interest of the near-Earth object monitoring community when its initial orbital plots indicated there was a possibility the 1,300-foot-wide chunk of space rock could impact Earth in 2029. The Near-Earth Object office knew what was needed was more detailed information about Apophis’ location, which they could then use to plot out a more accurate orbit.
Under the watchful eye of Ostro and three other radar astronomers, microwaves from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico reached out and touched asteroid Apophis on Jan. 27, 29, and 30, 2005. The Arecibo data significantly improved the asteroid’s orbital estimate, redefined its Earth approach distance in 2029 and decidedly reduced the probability of an Earth encounter during its next close approach in 2036.
The 1,000-foot diameter Arecibo telescope is one of only two places in the world where radar astronomy is effectively performed. The other is at the 70-meter Goldstone antenna in California’s Mojave Desert. The two instruments are complementary. The Arecibo radar is not fully steerable (while Goldstone is), but it is 30 times more sensitive. Together they make a formidable asteroid reconnaissance team.
The future of radar astronomy may be just as amazing as some of the images and shape models of nearby space objects that its practitioners have already obtained. There is new technology in the pipeline that will allow imaging of surface features with up to four times more detail than what exists today. And then there are proposals on the table for a potential space mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Candidate asteroids for said mission will need to be pre-approved via detail scientific analysis. The kind of scientific analysis you can only get with radar astronomy.
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