Tag Archives: asteroids

Boulder-sized asteroid discovered just before it hit Earth

The Catalina Sky Survey, designed to find asteroid with the potential of hitting the Earth, discovered a boulder-sized such asteroid this past weekend just hours before it burned up in the atmosphere.

Although there was not enough tracking data to make precise predictions ahead of time, a swath of possible locations was calculated stretching from Southern Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and onto New Guinea. Reports of a bright fireball above Botswana, Africa, early Saturday evening match up with the predicted trajectory for the asteroid. The asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere at the high speed of 10 miles per second (38,000 mph, or 17 kilometers per second) at about 16:44 UTC (9:44 a.m. PDT, 12:44 p.m. EDT,6:44 p.m. local Botswana time) and disintegrated several miles above the surface, creating a bright fireball that lit up the evening sky. The event was witnessed by a number of observers and was caught on webcam video.

When it was first detected, the asteroid was nearly as far away as the Moon’s orbit, although that was not initially known. The asteroid appeared as a streak in the series of time-exposure images taken by the Catalina telescope . As is the case for all asteroid-hunting projects, the data were quickly sent to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which calculated a preliminary trajectory indicating the possibility of an Earth impact. The data were in turn sent to the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the automated Scout system also found a high probability that the asteroid was on an impact trajectory. Automated alerts were sent out to the community of asteroid observers to obtain further observations, and to the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington. However, since the asteroid was determined to be so small and therefore harmless, no further impact alerts were issued by NASA.

The video at the link makes it appear that the asteroid has hit the ground, but that is not what happened.

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The surface properties of 122 asteroids revealed

Using archive data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Explorer telescope (WISE, renamed NEOWISE) astronomers have been able to estimate the surface properties of 122 small asteroids located in the asteroid belt.

“Using archived data from the NEOWISE mission and our previously derived shape models, we were able to create highly detailed thermophysical models of 122 main belt asteroids,” said Hanuš, lead author of the paper. “We now have a better idea of the properties of the surface regolith and show that small asteroids, as well as fast rotating asteroids, have little, if any, dust covering their surfaces.” (Regolith is the term for the broken rocks and dust on the surface.)

It could be difficult for fast-rotating asteroids to retain very fine regolith grains because their low gravity and high spin rates tend to fling small particles off their surfaces and into space. Also, it could be that fast-rotating asteroids do not experience large temperature changes because the sun’s rays are more rapidly distributed across their surfaces. That would reduce or prevent the thermal cracking of an asteroid’s surface material that could cause the generation of fine grains of regolith. [emphasis mine]

If this conclusion holds, it means that mining these asteroids might be much easier. Dust can be a big problem, as it can clog up equipment and interfere with operations. It also acts to hide the underlying material, making it harder to find the good stuff.

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Pluto formed from a billion comets?

Scientists have come up with a new theory for the origin of Pluto, based on data from New Horizons and Rosetta, that suggests the planets formed from the accretion of a billion comets or Kuiper Belt objects.

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. The research is described in a paper published online today in Icarus. At the heart of the research is the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia, a large glacier that forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface. “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

This is only a hypothesis, but it is intriguing. It suggests that Pluto’s make-up came only from the outer parts of the solar system, thus constraining how much mixing between the solar system’s inner and outer regions occurred. For scientists trying to understand the formation of the entire solar system, this lack of mixing would be significant. It means that the gas giants, while migrating inward, never migrated outward.

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Why jets formed on Comet 67P/C-G

Scientists analyzing the data produced by Rosetta while it was flying in formation with Comet 67P/C-G have determined that the comet’s complex topology acted almost like nozzles to encourage evaporating material to form jets.

The new study shows for the first time that mainly the unusual shape and jagged topography of the comet are responsible for this phenomenon. The researchers analyzed images at different observation geometries of the Hapi region located on the “neck” of the comet, the narrow part connecting its two lobes. In computer simulations, they were able to reproduce these images thus gaining a better understanding of the driving processes.

In particular, two effects proved to be decisive. Some regions on the surface are located at lower altitudes or in the shade. The first rays of sunlight reach them later. In contrast, the frost evaporates particularly efficiently from the early and strongly illuminated regions. In addition, pits and other concave structures virtually concentrate gas and dust emissions – much like an optical lens.

This means that predicting the evaporation patterns on other comets will require first obtaining a detailed map of the surface, showing both its topography and make-up. This also means that any future explorers will first have to send a robot scouting mission so that they can plan a safe arrival during active periods.

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Asteroid that formed in the inner solar system discovered in Kuiper Belt

Astronomers have discovered a carbonaceous asteroid in the distant Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, even though it likely formed in the inner solar system.

The asteroid’s existence serves to confirm models of the solar system’s formation that say that the orbits of gas giants migrate inward and outward during the formation process, and as they do so they can fling material out of the inner solar system. This asteroid is the first evidence of this process.

At the same time, the data here is quite slim. They have only found one such asteroid. It could be that it was flung into the Kuiper Belt by other processes. If the formation model is correct, many more such Kuiper Belt asteroids will be eventually be found.

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Diamonds from space!

Researchers have discovered nano-sized diamonds inside a recovered meteorite that suggest a formation process deep within a planet at least the size of Mercury.

The researchers used transmission electron microscopes to determine their composition and morphology, and found that the diamonds contained inclusions (impurities) made of chromite, phosphate and iron-nickel sulfides.

These inclusions are common in diamonds formed underground here on Earth, but this marks the first time they’ve been found in alien rocks. That’s interesting enough on its own, but it has much bigger implications – the team calculated that these diamonds could only have formed under pressure of more than 20 gigapascals. That means they must have been born inside a planet at least as big as Mercury, and possibly up to the size of Mars.

But there’s still more to the story. The fact these diamonds made it to Earth implies that their home planet, whatever it may have been, is no longer with us, since it would take quite a cataclysm to wrench them out of their birthplace deep underground and fling them into space. Instead, the team believes the diamonds came from a planetary embryo.

Not so fast. Though the researchers themselves, in the released paper, assume that the diamonds could only have formed from inside a now destroyed large planet, this leaves out the possibility that the diamonds formed inside one of the existing terrestrial planets, were moved upward toward the surface by later geological process (as happens to diamonds are here on Earth), and then were thrown from the planet by a later nearby impact. This scenario is just as likely.

Nonetheless, this discovery is fascinating. More than anything, it illustrates the inconceivable amount of time that has passed in creating our solar system. Any of these scenarios requires time, time in quantities that no human can really understand or conceptualize.

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Star’s close approach 70,000 years ago pinned to cometary orbits

Astronomers now think they have pinned the orbits of about 340 comets to another star’s close approach to our solar system 70,000 years ago.

About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids. Astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Cambridge have verified that the movement of some of these objects is still marked by that stellar encounter. At a time when modern humans were beginning to leave Africa and the Neanderthals were living on our planet, Scholz’s star – named after the German astronomer who discovered it – approached less than a light-year from the Sun. Nowadays it is almost 20 light-years away, but 70,000 years ago it entered the Oort cloud, a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects located at the confines of the solar system.

This discovery was made public in 2015 by a team of astronomers led by Professor Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester (USA). The details of that stellar flyby, the closest documented so far, were presented in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Now two astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid, the brothers Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, together with the researcher Sverre J. Aarseth of the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), have analyzed for the first time the nearly 340 objects of the solar system with hyperbolic orbits (very open V-shaped, not the typical elliptical), and in doing so they have detected that the trajectory of some of them is influenced by the passage of Scholz´s star.

It is likely that the close approach influenced a lot more objects, many of which might not have yet arrived in the inner solar system. Moreover, their computer models suggest that the star might have come closer to the Sun than 0.6 light years.

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Scientists theorize that Oumuamua came from a binary star system

Based on statistics and computer modeling, some scientists believe that the interstellar object Oumuamau likely came from stellar binary system.

For the new study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Jackson and his co-authors set about testing how efficient binary star systems are at ejecting objects. They also looked at how common these star systems are in the Galaxy. They found that rocky objects like ‘Oumuamua are far more likely to come from binary than single star systems. They were also able to determine that rocky objects are ejected from binary systems in comparable numbers to icy objects.

Their conclusion does make sense, though any good scientist would retain a gigantic sense of skepticism. While it is statistically reasonable to conclude that a majority of interstellar objects should come from binary systems, there is no guarantee that Oumuamua in particular did so. Even if the odds were one in a million, there is always that one, and the universe often seems prone to fooling us.

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Dawn finds recent changes on Ceres

New data from Dawn has found at least one spot on Ceres where recent changes appear to have occurred on the surface.

Observations obtained by the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) on the Dawn spacecraft previously found water ice in a dozen sites on Ceres. The new study revealed the abundance of ice on the northern wall of Juling Crater, a crater 12 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter. The new observations, conducted from April through October 2016, show an increase in the amount of ice on the crater wall. “This is the first direct detection of change on the surface of Ceres,” said Andrea Raponi of the Institute of Astrophysics and Planetary Science in Rome.

Raponi led the new study, which found changes in the amount of ice exposed on the dwarf planet. “The combination of Ceres moving closer to the sun in its orbit, along with seasonal change, triggers the release of water vapor from the subsurface, which then condenses on the cold crater wall. This causes an increase in the amount of exposed ice. The warming might also cause landslides on the crater walls that expose fresh ice patches.”

There is a certain irony here. For eons, the only alien body that humans were able to get a good look at, the Moon, was also an object where almost nothing changed. Even today, after humans have visited its surface and numerous orbiting spacecraft have photographed its surface in numbing detail, the Moon has generally been found to be stable and unchanging. Though impacts do occur, and the surface does evolve over time, the Moon is probably one of the most static bodies in the solar system.

The irony is that this lunar stability gave us an incorrect impression of the rest of the solar system. Based on the Moon, it was assumed that airless or almost airless bodies like Mercury, Mars, Pluto, the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and asteroids like Ceres would also be stable and unchanging. What we have instead found is that the Moon is the exception that proves the rule. Most of these other worlds are unlike the Moon. They show a lot of surface evolution, over relatively short time scales. They change.

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Funding shortfall causes Planetary Resources to cut back

Because of their failure to close a round of investment fund-raising, Planetary Resources has been forced to cut back, including some layoffs and delaying several proposed later missions.

The delayed investment, though, forced Planetary Resources to lay off some of its employees. Lewicki declined to say how many were let go from a peak of 70 employees prior to the layoffs.

That setback also affects the schedule for future asteroid prospecting missions. In his conference talk, Lewicki showed a video of a planned mission where several small spacecraft, launched as secondary payloads, fly to near Earth asteroids to measure their water content. In past presentations featuring that video, company officials said the mission was scheduled for launch in 2020.

However, Lewicki didn’t state in this talk when that mission would launch, and acknowledged later the funding problems would delay it until some time after 2020. “The 2020 date was assuming we would get all the necessary financing on schedule last year,” he said.

To me, this article illustrates why Planetary Resources failed to obtain its investment funds. They pitch themselves as an asteroid mining company, but very little of what they are doing has anything to do with actual mining, or obtaining profits from that mining. At the moment, they remain an Earth observation company with capabilities not as good as a host of other similar companies expressly dedicated to this task.

I say this not because I am against asteroid mining, or think it cannot make a profit. I just think Planetary Resources has oversold itself, which can be deadly in the harsh competitive market.

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Hayabusa-2 spots its target asteroid

In anticipation of a rendezvous later this year, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 space probe this week made its first visual detection of its target asteroid, Ryugu.

The data and images confirm that the spacecraft is on the correct course for a mid-year arrival, followed by a year and a half of observations using its ion engine.

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Interstellar object Oumuamua tumbling chaotically

A new analysis of the data obtained when the interstellar object Oumuamua flew through the solar system in October 2016 suggests that it is tumbling in a chaotic manner, and that the surface is spotty.

Straight away, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua wasn’t spinning periodically like most of the small asteroids and bodies that we see in our solar system. Instead, it is tumbling, or spinning chaotically, and could have been for many billions of years.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for this, it is thought that `Oumuamua impacted with another asteroid before it was fiercely thrown out of its system and into interstellar space. Dr Fraser explains: “Our modelling of this body suggests the tumbling will last for many billions of years to hundreds of billions of years before internal stresses cause it to rotate normally again.

To me, this data settles the question about whether Oumuamua is not an artificial structure. It is not. If it were, an impact that would have caused this kind of tumbling would have almost certainly destroyed it. Instead, it likely broke the original bolide up, producing many fragments, including Oumuamua and its elongated shape.

As for the object’s spottiness:

Dr Fraser explains: “Most of the surface reflects neutrally but one of its long faces has a large red region. This argues for broad compositional variations, which is unusual for such a small body.”

It is really a shame we couldn’t get a closer look before it sped away.

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New Horizons takes the most distant pictures from Earth ever taken

Kuiper Belt Object 2012 HE85

The New Horizons science team has released three images taken by the spacecraft from almost 3.8 billion miles from Earth, the most distant images ever taken.

The routine calibration frame of the “Wishing Well” galactic open star cluster, made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Dec. 5, was taken when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers, or 40.9 astronomical units) from Earth – making it, for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth.

…LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 – further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you’re covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day.

The images themselves are not spectacular to look at, though the two images of two different Kuiper Belt objects are the best ever taken of such objects, and certainly contain data that scientists will be able to use. The image on the right is one of these objects, 2012 HE85. For example, note how it does not appear to be round.

This exercise is in preparation for the January 1, 2019 fly-by of 2014 MU69, where the images will be sharp and detailed, and provide us a good look at such a distant object.

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Fractures in the floor of Occator Crater

Fractures in floor of Occator Crater

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released an image of Ceres, cropped to post here in the right, that shows a spiderweb of fractures radiating out from a single point in the floor of Occator Crater.

These fractures have been interpreted as evidence that material came up from below and formed a dome shape, as if a piston was pushing Occator’s floor from beneath the surface. This may be due to the upwelling of material coming from Ceres’ deep interior. An alternative hypothesis is that the deformation is due to volume changes inside a reservoir of icy magma in the shallow subsurface that is in the process of freezing, similar to the change in volume that a bottle of water experiences when put in a freezer.

In the image sunlight is coming from the right. This fractured area can be seen in this earlier simulated oblique image of Occator Crater, in the southwest corner of the crater floor, well away from the crater’s more well known bright areas.

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Arecibo returns to operation with images of asteroid Phaethon

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has resumed science observations after recovering from Hurricane Maria with new radio images of the asteroid Phaethon.

After several months of downtime after Hurricane Maria blew through, the Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar has returned to normal operation, providing the highest-resolution images to date of near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon during its Dec. 16 flyby of Earth. The radar images, which are subtle at the available resolution, reveal the asteroid is spheroidal in shape and has a large concavity at least several hundred meters in extent near the leading edge, and a conspicuous dark, circular feature near one of the poles. Arecibo’s radar images of Phaethon have resolutions as fine as about 250 feet (75 meters) per pixel.

The images also revealed that Phaethon, which is considered a potentially hazardous near Earth asteroid, is about 3.6 miles across and is about a half mile larger than previously believed.

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Oumuamua has a thick carbon crust built up by its interstellar travel

New results of observations of the interstellar object Oumuamua suggest that it has a thick crust of organic carbon soot that was slowly built up during the millions of years it traveled between the stars.

New observations of the cigar-shaped body found evidence for a deep surface layer that formed when organic ices – such as frozen carbon dioxide, methane and methanol – that make up the object were battered by the intense radiation that exists between the stars.

…The deep outer crust may have formed on the body over millions or even billions of years and gives ‘Oumuamua a dark red colour, according to researchers who investigated the object with the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands and the European Southern observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert.

There have been a slew of news stories today about these results, all focusing not on the crust of the object, which tells us nothing really about its interior, but on one quote by one scientist from the press release, who theorized — based on zero data — that the interior of the object could be icy. From this quote I have seen at least a half dozen stories exclaiming that Oumuamua thus could be like a comet, based on no information at all.

All we have learned is that traveling for a long time in interstellar space causes a build up of carbon-rich materials on the surface of an object. What might be hidden under that crust remains entirely unknown. It could be icy, but we don’t know that.

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A variety of geological activity caused bright areas on Ceres

Occator Crater

Based on the data obtained of Ceres from Dawn scientists have concluded that a variety of geological activities caused the bright areas on the planet, and that some of those activities could still be happening today.

Since Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres in March 2015, scientists have located more than 300 bright areas on Ceres. A new study in the journal Icarus, led by Nathan Stein, a doctoral researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California, divides Ceres’ features into four categories.

The first group of bright spots contains the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors. The most iconic examples are in Occator Crater [shown in the image above, reduced and cropped to post here], which hosts two prominent bright areas. Cerealia Facula, in the center of the crater, consists of bright material covering a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) pit, within which sits a small dome. East of the center is a collection of slightly less reflective and more diffuse features called Vinalia Faculae. All the bright material in Occator Crater is made of salt-rich material, which was likely once mixed in water. Although Cerealia Facula is the brightest area on all of Ceres, it would resemble dirty snow to the human eye.

More commonly, in the second category, bright material is found on the rims of craters, streaking down toward the floors. Impacting bodies likely exposed bright material that was already in the subsurface or had formed in a previous impact event.

Separately, in the third category, bright material can be found in the material ejected when craters were formed.

The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category — the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed bythe gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks.

The report is somewhat vague about why they think that there might be some geological activity even today.

The image above, released as part of this press release, gives us a simulated oblique look at Occator Crater and its bright areas. It is definitely worth it to look at the full resolution image.

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The organic dust of Comet 67P/C-G

A study of the dust released by Comet 67P/C-G and captured by Rosetta shows that carbon molecules appear to comprise the comet’s largest component, and that this material is found in the form of very large macromolecules.

As the study shows, organic molecules are among those ingredients at the top of the list. These account for about 45 percent of the weight of the solid cometary material. “Rosetta’s comet thus belongs to the most carbon-rich bodies we know in the solar system,” says MPS scientist and COSIMA team member Dr. Oliver Stenzel. The other part of the total weight, about 55 percent, is provided by mineral substances, mainly silicates. It is striking that they are almost exclusively non-hydrated minerals i.e. missing water compounds. “Of course, Rosetta’s comet contains water like any other comet, too,” says Hilchenbach. “But because comets have spent most of their time at the icy rim of the solar system, it has almost always been frozen and could not react with the minerals.” The researchers therefore regard the lack of hydrated minerals in the comet’s dust as an indication that 67P contains very pristine material.

…The current findings also touch on our ideas of how life on Earth came about. In a previous publication, the COSIMA team was able to show that the carbon found in Rosetta’s comet is mainly in the form of large, organic macromolecules. Together with the current study, it becomes clear that these compounds make up a large part of the cometary material. Thus, if comets indeed supplied the early Earth with organic matter, as many researchers assume, it would probably have been mainly in the form of such macromolecules.

Organic here does not mean life, but is instead used as chemists use it, to mean the molecule includes the element carbon. The results do suggest however that the early solar system had a lot of carbon available, and that much of it was in a relatively pure form available to interact with other elements.

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Interstellar object resembles asteroid

Astronomers who have been observing the interstellar object that zipped past the Sun last month have concluded that it mostly resembles asteroids seen in our own solar system.

From its changing brightness, the team inferred that U1 is highly elongated with rough dimensions 30m x 30m x 180m. About twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, the 6:1 aspect ratio of U1 is “similar to the proportions of a fire extinguisher — although U1 is not as red as that,” says David Jewitt (UCLA), the first author of the study.

“With such an elongated shape, U1 probably needs a little cohesive strength to hold it together. But that’s not really unusual,” remarked study coauthor Jayadev Rajagopal (National Optical Astronomy Observatory). Commenting on its size, rotation, and color, Rajagopal mused that, “the most remarkable thing about U1 is that, except for its shape, how familiar and physically unremarkable it is.”

I wonder if they are still tracking it.

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New Horizons wants the public to help pick a nickname for its next target

The New Horizons science team is asking the public to submit suggestions for a good nickname for 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object that the spacecraft will fly past on January 1, 2019.

The naming campaign is hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, and led by Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The website includes names currently under consideration; site visitors can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. “The campaign is open to everyone,” Showalter said. “We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69.”

The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.

The press release says that a more formal name for the object will be submitted to the IAU after the fly-by.

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An ancient ocean on Ceres?

Two studies released today by the Dawn science team suggest that the spacecraft has found evidence that an ancient ocean once existed on Ceres.

In one study, the Dawn team found Ceres’ crust is a mixture of ice, salts and hydrated materials that were subjected to past and possibly recent geologic activity, and this crust represents most of that ancient ocean. The second study builds off the first and suggests there is a softer, easily deformable layer beneath Ceres’ rigid surface crust, which could be the signature of residual liquid left over from the ocean, too.

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Rosetta’s capture of a dust jet from Comet 67P/C-G

Dust jet on Comet 67P/C-G

Cool image time! The Rosetta science team has released images and data gathered in July 2016 when the spacecraft successfully observed a dust outburst erupting from Comet 67P/C-G’s surface. The image on the right, slightly reduced in resolution, shows that outburst.

When the Sun rose over the Imhotep region of Rosetta’s comet on July 3, 2016, everything was just right: As the surface warmed and began to emit dust into space, Rosetta’s trajectory led the probe right through the cloud. At the same time, the view of the scientific camera system OSIRIS coincidentally focused precisely on the surface region of the comet from which the fountain originated. A total of five instruments on board the probe were able to document the outburst in the following hours.

As should be expected, the results did not match the models or predictions. The jet, instigated by water-ice just below the surface turning into gas when heated by the Sun, was much dustier than predicted. They have theories as to why, but it appears that no one likes these theories that much.

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The first large object identified coming from interstellar space

Astronomers think they have spotted the first large object to come from beyond the solar system.

Based on its apparent brightness, dynamicist Bill Gray calculates that it would have a diameter of about 160 meters (525 feet) if it were a rock with a surface reflectivity of 10%. “It went past the Sun really fast,” Gray notes, “and may not have had time to heat up enough to break apart.”

Now it’s headed out of the solar system, never to return. It passed closest to Earth on October 14th at a distance of about 24,000,000 km (15,000,000 miles), and astronomers worldwide have been tracking it in the hopes of divining its true nature — especially whether it’s displaying any cometary activity.

…According to Gray, Comet PanSTARRS appears to have entered the solar system from the direction of the constellation Lyra, within a couple of degrees of right ascension 18h 50m, declination +35° 13′. That’s tantalizingly close to Vega — and eerily reminiscent of the plot of the movie Contact — but its exact path doesn’t (yet) appear to link any particular star.

This object entered the solar system moving at 26 km (16 miles) per second. At that speed, in 10 million years it would traverse 8,200,000,000,000,000 km — more than 850 light-years.

Reminds me of a really good science fiction novel I read recently. They should keep an eye on it for as long as they can, just in case it suddenly changes course and settles into a more circular orbit around the Sun. In the unlikely case it does that, it might just be the biggest discovery in history.

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NASA extends Dawn’s mission orbiting Ceres

NASA has decided to extend the Dawn mission again, but have that extension remain in orbit around Ceres.

A priority of the second Ceres mission extension is collecting data with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which measures the number and energy of gamma rays and neutrons. This information is important for understanding the composition of Ceres’ uppermost layer and how much ice it contains.

The spacecraft also will take visible-light images of Ceres’ surface geology with its camera, as well as measurements of Ceres’ mineralogy with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

The extended mission at Ceres additionally allows Dawn to be in orbit while the dwarf planet goes through perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun, which will occur in April 2018. At closer proximity to the Sun, more ice on Ceres’ surface may turn to water vapor, which may in turn contribute to the weak transient atmosphere detected by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory before Dawn’s arrival. Building on Dawn’s findings, the team has hypothesized that water vapor may be produced in part from energetic particles from the Sun interacting with ice in Ceres’ shallow surface.Scientists will combine data from ground-based observatories with Dawn’s observations to further study these phenomena as Ceres approaches perihelion.

They aim to get as close as 120 miles of the surface during this extension, half as close as the previous closest approach.

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Astronomers reduce estimate of still undiscovered dangerous asteroids

Astronomers have now reduced [pdf] their estimate of the number of still undiscovered dangerous Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that could impact the Earth from 100 to less than 40.

Observers have been cataloging potentially hazardous asteroids for decades. Based on the number of finds, the area of sky explored, and the limiting brightness our telescopes and cameras can reach, researchers can estimate what fraction of the NEA population has been detected so far and how many more objects lurk undiscovered. Harris has published numerous such estimates over the years. Recently he realized that his estimates have been plagued by a seemingly innocuous but nonetheless consequential round-off error. Once corrected, the estimated number of large (diameter > 1 kilometer) NEAs remaining to be discovered decreases from more than 100 to less than 40.

To put it mildly, there is a lot of uncertainty here. This also reminds me of the cavers’ joke question: “How many miles of unexplored passages does this cave have?”

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Nearby asteroid orbits both the Earth and the Sun

Worlds without end: Astronomers have determined that a recently discovered object with a weird solar orbit that also has it loop around the Earth each year is an asteroid, not space junk.

The asteroid is dubbed 2016 HO3. What is most interesting about this story to me however was this tidbit:

“Of the near-Earth objects we know of, these types of objects would be the easiest to reach, so they could potentially make suitable targets for exploration,” said Veillet, director of the LBT Observatory. “With its binocular arrangement of two 8.4-meter mirrors, coupled with a very efficient pair of imagers and spectrographs like MODS, LBT is ideally suited to the characterization of these Earth’s companions.”

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Astronomers discover ring around object beyond Neptune

Observations of the trans-Neptunian object Haumea has revealed that not only is is shaped like a football due to its fast rotation, it has a ring.

Haumea is an interesting object: it rotates around the Sun in an elliptic orbit which takes it 284 years to complete (it presently lies fifty times further from the Sun than the Earth), and it takes 3.9 hours to rotate around its axis, much less than any other body measuring more than a hundred kilometers long in the entire Solar System. This rotational speed causes it to flatten out, giving it an ellipsoid shape similar to a rugby ball. The recently published data reveal that Haumea measures 2.320 kilometers in its largest axis – almost the same as Pluto – but lacks the global atmosphere that Pluto has.

“One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was the discovery of a ring around Haumea. Until a few years ago we only knew of the existence of rings around the giant planets; then, recently, our team discovered that two small bodies situated between Jupiter and Neptune, belonging to a group called centaurs, have dense rings around them, which came as a big surprise. Now we have discovered that bodies even farther away than the centaurs, bigger and with very different general characteristics, can also have rings,” says Pablo Santos-Sanz, another member of the IAA-CSIC team.

The more we see of these distant objects beyond Neptune the more I suspect that they are going to be puffy, not very dense, and surrounded by miscellaneous objects. The gravity and environment that far from the Sun simply allows them to not coalesce as happened in the inner solar system.

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Hubble spots most distance active comet yet

Comet C/2017 K2

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have imaged a comet that is sublimating material at a distance from the Sun farther than any previously known comet, out beyond Saturn.

“K2 is so far from the Sun and so cold, we know for sure that the activity — all the fuzzy stuff making it look like a comet — is not produced, as in other comets, by the evaporation of water ice,” said lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we think the activity is due to the sublimation [a solid changing directly into a gas] of super-volatiles as K2 makes its maiden entry into the solar system’s planetary zone. That’s why it’s special. This comet is so far away and so incredibly cold that water ice there is frozen like a rock.”

Based on the Hubble observations of K2’s coma, Jewitt suggests that sunlight is heating frozen volatile gases – such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide – that coat the comet’s frigid surface. These icy volatiles lift off from the comet and release dust, forming the coma. Past studies of the composition of comets near the Sun have revealed the same mixture of volatile ices.

The significance here is that by studying the comet’s activity scientists will be able to identify some of these volatile gases, which in turn will tell them something about the make-up of the outermost fringes of the solar system.

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One last image from Rosetta

Rosetta's last image

Engineers reviewing the last bits of telemetry that was transmitted back to Earth by Rosetta just before it crashed on Comet 67P/C-G have discovered one last image of the comet’s surface.

That image is on the right. It is slightly blurred because of the limitations of Rosetta’s camera at this short range, and the incompleteness of the data received.

The image covers an area about a meter across, with a resolution of about two millimeters per pixel.

I imagine this surface is relatively soft, since the gravity holding the comet together is so slight. If you wanted to dig down, you would find it easy digging.

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