Arecibo Observatory Scientists Help Solve the Mystery of the Surprise Asteroid

When asteroid 2019 OK suddenly appeared in the direction of Earth on July 25, 2019, Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin and the team at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico sprang into action.

After receiving an alert, radar operators focused on the asteroid, which came from Earth’s blind spot – the solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to get as many radar readings as possible. He traveled so fast, she would have him in Arecibo’s sights all the time. UCF operates the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a cooperative agreement.

The asteroid made headlines because it seemed to come out of nowhere and was moving fast.

Zambrano-Marin’s findings were published in the Journal of Planetary Science June 10, just weeks before the world observes Asteroid Day, which is June 30 and promotes global awareness to help educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” says Zambrano-Marin, a planetary scientist at UCF. “No one saw it until it was nearly past, so when we received the alert we had very little time to act. Even so, we were able to capture a lot of valuable information. “

It turns out the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and moving fast. It was running at 3 to 5 minutes. This means that it is only part of 4.2% of known rapidly rotating asteroids. This is a growing group that researchers say needs more attention.

The data indicate that the asteroid is likely either C-type, consisting of clay and silicate rocks, or S-type, consisting of silicate and nickel-iron. C-type asteroids are among the most common and oldest in our solar system. Type S is the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is currently inspecting data collected through the Arecibo Planetary Radar Database to continue its research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the planetary radar team can tap into the existing data bank that spans four decades. Scientific operations continue in the fields of space and atmospheric sciences, and staff are refurbishing 12-meter antennas to continue research in astronomy.

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

According to the Center for Near Earth Studies, there are nearly 30,000 known asteroids and while few pose an immediate threat, it is possible for a sizable asteroid to hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. This is why NASA maintains close monitoring and a system to detect and characterize objects once they are found. NASA and other space agency nations have launched missions to explore near-Earth asteroids to better understand what they are made of and how they move in anticipation of having to divert a course towards Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus physics professor Humberto Campins, has returned to Earth with a sample from asteroid Bennu, which has thrown up some surprises for scientists. 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 was launched in November 2021 and is expected to hit its target – the asteroid Dimorphos – on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of the Arecibo team are working to provide the scientific community with more information about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to help make contingency plans.

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

Zambrano-Marin holds several degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in applied physics from the Ana G. Mendez University System and a master’s degree in space science from the International Space University in France. She has published over 20 articles and is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences around the world. She previously worked at the Vatican Observatory and as a consultant to the President of the University of the Caribbean. In addition to working on the Planetary Radar Group at Arecibo, Zambrano-Marin also established the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, an 18-week research program for pre-college students in Puerto Rico.

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

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