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Astronomers use radio emissions from distant galaxy to observe asteroid

The wonders of science: Astronomers have successfully used the faint radio emissions from very distant galaxy to roughly determine the shape and size of a nearby asteroid.

In an unusual observation, astronomers used the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) to study the effects on radio waves coming from a distant radio galaxy when an asteroid in our Solar System passed in front of the galaxy. The observation allowed them to measure the size of the asteroid, gain new information about its shape, and greatly improve the accuracy with which its orbital path can be calculated.

When the asteroid passed in front of the galaxy, radio waves coming from the galaxy were slightly bent around the asteroid’s edge, in a process called diffraction. As these waves interacted with each other, they produced a circular pattern of stronger and weaker waves, similar to the patterns of bright and dark circles produced in terrestrial laboratory experiments with light waves. “By analyzing the patterns of the diffracted radio waves during this event, we were able to learn much about the asteroid, including its size and precise position, and to get some valuable clues about its shape,” said Jorma Harju, of the University of Helsinki in Finland.

The amount of information is not great, and there is an enormous amount of uncertainty in the data. Nonetheless, this is an amazing and fascinating observation.

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