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The mystery of an unexpected asteroid is revealed – it flies to Earth from a blind zone

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Dangerous Asteroid Approaching Earth
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Nearly 30,000 asteroids are known, according to the Center for Near Earth Studies. While few of them pose an immediate threat, there is a chance that one of a significant size could hit the ground and cause catastrophic damage. That’s why the work of researchers like Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin of the University of Central Florida is so important.

When asteroid 2019 OK suddenly appeared approaching Earth on July 25, 2019, Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin and a team of astronomers from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico quickly jumped into action.

Upon receiving the alarm, the radar scientists focused on an asteroid that was approaching from Earth’s blind spot, the solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and his team only had 30 minutes to collect as much radar data as possible. The asteroid was flying so fast that she was in Arecibo’s field of vision the entire time. The University of Central Florida (UCF) operates the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a cooperative agreement.

Because the asteroid came out of nowhere and moved so fast, it made headlines.

Zambrano-Marin’s findings were published on 10 June in Journal of Planetary Sciencejust a few weeks before the world celebrates Asteroid Day on June 30th and promotes global awareness to help educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” says Zambrano-Marin, planetary scientist at UCF. “No one saw him until he had practically walked by, so when we got the warning we had very little time to act. However, we were able to get a lot of valuable information.”

Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Telescope was a 305 m (1,000 ft) long spherical reflector radio telescope built into a natural funnel at the Arecibo Observatory located near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. It is pictured here in the spring of 2019 before its collapse in late 2020. Photo: UCF.

It turns out that the asteroid had a diameter of 0.04 to 0.08 miles (0.06 to 0.13 km) and was moving fast. It rotated between 3 and 5 minutes, which means it is part of only 4.2 percent of the known fast-spinning asteroids. This is a growing group that scientists say needs more attention.

According to the data, the asteroid is likely a Type C, composed of clay and silicate rocks, or Type S, composed of silicate and nickel and iron. C-type asteroids are among the most common and one of the oldest in our solar system. S-types are the second most common.

To continue its investigation, Zambrano-Marin is currently checking the data received by Arecibo’s planetary radar database. Even though the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team will be able to use the current data bank, which spans four decades. Scientific work in the field of space and atmospheric sciences continues, and personnel are repairing 12-meter antennas to continue astronomical research.

Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin

UCF planetary scientist Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin works at the NSF Arecibo Observatory. Credit: Arecibo Observatory/UCF.

“We can use new data from other observatories and compare it with the observations we have made here over the past 40 years,” says Zambrano-Marin. “Radar data not only helps confirm information from optical observations, but can also help us determine physical and dynamic characteristics, which in turn can give us insight into appropriate deflection methods if needed to protect the planet.”

Almost 30,000 asteroids are known, according to the Center for Near Earth Science, and while few of them pose an immediate threat, it is possible that one of a significant size could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. That’s why[{” attribute=””>NASA keeps a close watch and system to detect and characterize objects once they are found. NASA and other space agencies nations have been launching missions to explore Near-Earth Asteroids to better understand what they are made of and how they move in anticipation of having to divert one heading for earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus Professor of Physics Humberto Campins, is headed back to Earth with a sample of asteroid Bennu, which gave scientists a few 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 launched in November 2021 and is expected to reach its target — the Dimorphos asteroid — on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of the team at Arecibo are working on providing the scientific community with more information about the many kinds of asteroids in the solar system to help come up with contingency plans.

This week the team at the Arecibo Observatory is holding a series of special events as part of the Asteroid Day awareness campaign. They include presentations, “ask a scientist” stations for those visiting the science museum at Arecibo, and on June 25 presentations about the DART mission in English and Spanish. The timing couldn’t be better as there are five known asteroids from the size of a car to a Boeing 747 that will be buzzing Earth before Asteroid Day, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that keeps track of the celestial bodies for NASA. The closest approach is on June 25 with an object coming within 475,000 miles of Earth. For comparison, the moon is about 239,000 miles from Earth.

Zambrano-Marin has multiple degrees including a bachelor’s degree in applied physics from the Ana G. Mendez University System and a master’s in space sciences from the International Space University in France. She has published more than 20 articles and is a frequent speaker and presenter at conference around the world. She previously worked at the Vatican Observatory and as a consultant to the Caribbean University president. In addition to working on the planetary radar group at Arecibo, Zambrano-Marin also created the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, an 18-week research program for pre-college students in Puerto Rico.

Reference: “Radar and Optical Characterization of Near-Earth Asteroid 2019 OK” by Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin, Ellen S. Howell, Patrick A. Taylor, Sean E. Marshall, Maxime Devogèle, Anne K. Virkki, Dylan C. Hickson, Edgard G. Rivera-Valentín, Flaviane C. F. Venditti and Jon D. Giorgini, 10 June 2022, The Planetary Science Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/PSJ/ac63cd

The other team members on the study are: Sean Marshal, Maxime Devogele, Anne Virkki, and Flaviane Venditti from the Arecibo Observatory/UCF; Dylan C. Hickson formerly from Arecibo/UCF and now at Center for Wave Phenomena, Colorado School of Mines; Ellen S. Howell from Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson; Patrick Taylor and Edgard Rivera-Valentin from Lunar and Planetary Institute, Universities Space Research Association, Houston; and Jon Giorgini from Solar System Dynamics Group, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


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