News From Space: Asteroid Misses Earth (Again!)

2000EM26_1Yesterday, an asteroid estimated to be the size of three football fields passed Earth by. Traveling at 43,000 kilometers per hour and passing at a distance of 8.8 lunar distances of Earth, the asteroid showed up just one year after a similar asteroid exploded over Russia and injured 1,200 people. The only problem was, the good people of Earth missed the show!

Slooh, an online “community observatory” that streams images from ground-based telescopes online during celestial events, was supposed to broadcast the approach of the asteroid as it raced past the planet, starting at 9 p.m. ET (2 a.m. MT).  Unfortunately, Slooh’s flagship observatory on Mount Teide in Spain’s Canary Islands was iced over and unable to catch the asteroid – named 2000 EM26 – as it passed us by.

2000EM26_2014_logoShortly thereafter, Slooh’s robotic telescope tried to snap pictures attempted to snap pictures of the asteroid but failed to capture an image at the predicted position. And now, the asteroid has gone missing in the deep sea of space, giving rise to the nickname “Moby Dick”. This means that either the asteroid’s predicted path was in error, or the object was much fainter than expected.

Paul Cox, Slooh’s technical and research director, said that the asteroid should be somewhere in the visible star field. And rather than accept failure at retracing its path, he and the other folks at Slooh are calling upon amateur astronomers to conduct a photographic search for it in the next few nights. Finding it is not just a matter of honor, but of determining how much the space rock has shifted over time.

2000EM26_2Since the asteroid was last observed 14 years ago for only 9 days, it isn’t too surprising that uncertainties in its position could add up over time, shifting its position and path to a different part of the sky by now. As Cox pointed out:

Discovering these Near Earth Objects isn’t enough. As we’ve seen with 2000 EM26, all the effort that went into its discovery is worthless unless follow­up observations are made to accurately determine their orbits for the future.  And that’s exactly what Slooh members are doing, using the robotic telescopes at our world­-class observatory site to accurately measure the precise positions of these asteroids and comets.

Naturally, there were some who worried that this elusive rock might threaten Earth, given its proximity to our own orbit and the fact that it’s path may have changed. But there is no reason to fear, as these changes are not likely to bring it into our path and it won’t be returning anytime soon. And before it does, we ought to have eyes on it again and be able to accurately chart its course.

2000EM26And above all, similar sized asteroids, including ones passing even closer to Earth, zip by every month. 2000 EM26 received a lot of coverage yesterday in part because it arrived close to the anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteorite fall over Russia. And though it remains hidden for now, eyes are on the sky to find the asteroid again and refine its orbit.

Hopefully the beast won’t get away next time!



News From Space: Asteroids in the Bag!

asteroid_earthFor some time, NASA has been forthright about its plans to tow an asteroid closer to Earth for the sake of study. As part of their long-term goals, this plan calls for the capture of a Near Earth Object (NEO) and positioning it at one of two Lagrange Points before conducting research on it. And late last month, they released plans on how they intend to go about doing this.

The first step, picking and choosing a potential target, would be handled by the telescope known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Launched in 2009, this telescope was charged with a two-year mission to image 99% of the visible sky in infrared wavelengths. Once this mission was successfully completed, NASA reassigned the craft a second four-month mission to track and discover near-Earth objects (NEOs).

orion_asteroidOnce that’s done, the next phase of the mission will involve launching an unmanned probe to intercept the NEO and drag it back into a retrievable position, probably by wrapping a bag around it. While this might sound improbable, keep in mind NEOs are rather small, and a bag of high-tensile material would do the trick. A crew would then be dispatched on an Orion capsule mated to the upcoming heavy rocket known as the Space Launch System to retrieve samples of the asteroid and return them to Earth.

Despite troubles getting the US Congress to approve a budget necessary to mount a capture mission, NASA remains committed to the plan, mainly because of the benefits it would entail. Many of these small asteroids are thought to contain minerals from the very early stages of the solar system’s formation, which means they’d be a useful means of investigating theories on how planets and planetoids form.

orion_captureIn addition, studying NEOs is also essential in creating safeguards against them striking Earth. The Russian meteorite explosion earlier this year put a new emphasis on the importance of tracking small asteroids, as the object that detonated in the skies above Chelyabinsk was too small to have been detected by other means. Much like many small asteroids, NEOs are too small to reflect visible light and must be tracked by infrared imaging.

Ultimately, bagging and dragging one of the smaller ones may be the only way to successfully study them and find ways to divert the larger ones. And a mission of this nature would stretch NASA’s unmanned capabilities for probes and satellites — a useful factor when discussing exploration of targets like Europa or Titan. It would also serve as a test of the Orion capsule and SLS, which are the intended means of getting astronauts to Mars by 2030.

asteroid_neo_studyNASA’s news release included a series of photos and a video animation of how the capture operation would take place, which included crew operations, the Orion spacecraft’s trip to and rendezvous with the relocated asteroid, as well as astronauts maneuvering through a spacewalk to collect samples from the asteroid.

NASA will also be hosting a technical workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 20th to Oct. 2nd to discuss potential ideas, and is looking for public input. Virtual participation will also be available to the public, and details on how to participate will become available soon. Stay tuned for updates, or check in with Universe Today, who is following the story.

And be sure to check out NASA’s video on what the NEO capture would look like. And check out more of pictures at NASA’s Asteroid Initiative website.