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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Man weighs asteroid with radio waves

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It's late, so just a deep space quirky (Edit, I added a few pictures):

Astronomer Steve Chesley has managed, using data from the Goldstone Solar System Radar [1], the Spitzer Space Telescope [2], and the Arecibo radio observatory [3], to make the most accurate estimate yet as to the mass of asteroid 1999 RQ36 [4].

 Image left: The titanic Arecibo radio dish, an eye on the universe fit for spaceship Earth. Image courtesy of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre.

The 600 meter wide space rock weighs in at sixty million tons [5], and is set to be visited by the OSIRIS-REx mission, which should begin in 2016. Chesley presented the finding at the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 2012 meeting in Niigata, Japan. 

He has also measured the effects of the Yarkovsky force [6], where an asteroid absorbs sunlight and re-emits it as heat causing a small propulsive effect, on this big tiddler of an asteroid: The tiny but real force has moved the rock about one hundred and sixty kilometres off course.

Pinning down the mass of 1999 RQ36, and the size of the Yarkovsky force it feels, will make it easier to determine if this Earth crossing asteroid will ever hit us. There are eight possible impacts in the last thirty years of the 22nd century, although the total chance of any of them happening is less than a tenth of a percent.

OSIRIS-REx [7] is aimed at uncovering our solar systems origins, and how the molecules that pre-cursored life formed. 1999RQ36 is a carbonaceous asteroid [8], potentially rich in these.

Here's a very atmospheric run down on the mission courtesy of the University of Arizona:

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