Asteroids Are A Blast


If you are an amateur stargazer who enjoys viewing interesting cosmic objects through a telescope, there are a few galactic peepshows you want to make sure you execute before the subjects disappear forever. Russia has announced their intention to test their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by blasting to smithereens certain near-earth objects (NEOs). The spacerocks in their crosshairs range in size from  20-50 meters (65-165 feet). Potential targets are asteroids as well as meteorites that have broken off from asteroids  which orbit the Sun and are capable of surviving the atmospheric burn of falling to Earth, posing the risk of slamming into the surface of our planet. Russia’s target practice could serve to save lives which usually runs counter to the whole point of ICBMs.

The first scheduled missile test is slated for 2036. That is when scientists expect asteroid 99942 Apophis to come within a dangerous close proximity to Earth. Although NASA has definitively ruled out the possibility of an impact, it is still expected to be a close enough encounter that Russia believes it will be within missile range. What weapons junkie could resist such an opportunity?

However, these high grade shoot-en-anny toys require upgrades. It takes days to properly prepare the fuel the rockets use. That means that Russia’s current ICBM’s cannot be rapidly deployed to destroy a meteorite that Earthlings may only detect within hours of coming into range, such as the Chelyabinsk meteorite. It will take millions of dollars to make the necessary changes. However, when they are completed Russia’s weapons of war will be converted to defensive weapons keeping the entire world safe. Instead of Russia launching people killers, they will be launching people saving asteroid blasters. Does that mean that by means of defensive measures we all become Russian by proxy? Or perhaps that simply means for a brief moment, we all become one united human race? Either way, the gringa thinks the sentiment is sweet.

Bottom line for backyard stargazers is that if you want to have a chance of seeing Apophis, you will get your last chance in about thirteen years. The asteroid was discovered twelve years ago and is a bit larger than three football fields. A pass of the asteroid is expected in 2029. This may be humanity’s last chance to view it before it’s 2036 pass that could be its final one if Russia gets its proposal approved and succeeds in blasting Apophis to infinity and beyond.

Although the 2036 pass only has a one in a million chance of impacting Earth, it is still an historical event where astronomy is concerned. Apophis will be the largest asteroid that has ever come as close to Earth as it is projected to. It will zoom by almost 19,000 miles over the heads of unsuspecting Earthlings. Although there are other asteroid’s that pass closer, such as 2012 DA14 which does a 17,000 mile altitude flyby, Apophis is much, much larger than the nearer pipsqueaks.

It is amazing how many NEOs travel by our home planet. Astronomy is a career where there is never a dull moment if you are entrusted with the task of tracking NEOs and projecting trajectories.  This is a very important job to determine courses in order to protect all of humanity from the possibility of a collision. For kids intrigued with outer space and who don’t mind the math, astronomy offers the opportunity of a lifetime. To get a taste of the work they do, follow their reports on NASA’s Asteroid Watch program and stay current with updates through Twitter.

Sources: tass.ru

www.nasa.gov

Image Source:  iluminaci.com

 

 

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HoHoHo – Earth’s Playful Companion


Some astronomy, space and science enthusiasts are claiming that NASA has reported the discovery of a second moon for Earth. Before the gringa’s dear readers get all jittery with excitement and embarrass yourself at a social occasion by repeating this bit of  information that is actually a sensationalized truth, let me set the record straight.

First of all, the cosmic object we are talking about is an asteroid called 2016 HO3 . The gringa affectionately refers to this asteroid as HoHoHo. Although it does, indeed, circle our planet while traveling it’s orbit, it lacks certain criteria that would actually define it as a satellite, or, moon. Consider the official definitions for a natural satellite, quasi-satellite, asteroid and moon:

Asteroid:  A small, rocky body that orbits the sun.

Moon:  (where the Earth is concerned) – the natural satellite of the Earth.

Natural Satellite:  An object that revolves around a planet.

Quasi-Satellite:  A celestial object that seems to revolve around a planet but really doesn’t or only partially revolves around the planet.

The common thread between the three definitions is orbiting a planet or the Sun. HoHoHo only seems to circle the Earth so it is really a quasi-satellite and not a second moon. It’s a planetary companion, a cosmic friend, a galactic fellow traveler who passes by periodically. Earth and HoHoHo both orbit the Sun and HoHoHo has been our planet’s reliable companion for nearly a century.

Earth once had another friend like HoHoHo but that relationship broke up more than a decade ago. Asteroid 2003 YN107 (I call it Whiney), followed us around for a few years but Earth did not have a strong enough influence. I suppose Whiney was a bit strong-willed and broke free from Earth, going its own way.

However, HoHoHo may find Earth irresistible because, not only has it remained a faithful cosmic friend for over a century, astronomers expect the relationship to continue for hundreds of more years. HoHoHo enjoys a good bit of “me” time, though, spending about half of its time closer to the Sun than Earth. HoHoHo also gets a bit unsteady on its feet, bobbing up and down in its orbit path. This happens because, as it lags behind Earth when it gets closer to the Sun, Earth’s gravitational affect on the asteroid changes. This causes HoHoHo to seem to have a playful personality. When astronomers plot the asteroid’s orbit path, speed changes, tilts and bobs, it looks as if it is playing leapfrog with Earth.

HoHoHo was first spotted by stargazers April 27, 2016 by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. Astronomers estimate that HoHoHo’s size is between 120-300 feet (40-100 meters). Amateur stargazers can visit NASA’s online near-earth-object (NEO) resource, the Center for NEO Studies,  to find a list of dates and times to anticipate an approach by HoHoHo, as well as other cosmic passersby, to plan your own sighting if you have access to a telescope. Backyard astronomers can also stay up-to-date with cosmic objects to watch by following  Asteroid Watch  on Twitter.

So, even though the thought of a second moon is titillating, the real story is just as interesting. Keep looking to the stars. Who knows what might show up next?!

Sources:

www.nasa.gov

www.collective-evolution.com

Image Credit: www.sciencenews.org

 

 

 

 

A Halloween Fly-By


Halloween is fast approaching and NASA has been working on a suitable treat for all of its fans. On October 31 at 10:05 am, space enthusiasts should be prepared for an asteroid flyby, at a safe distance of course. If you have access to an observatory you could get a close up of this baby or glimpse it at home with a telescope. Scientists will be actively scanning asteroid 2015 TB145 from “spacecraft Earth” during what they consider a “close pass”.

This hunk of rock is new to the asteroid catalog. It was only discovered this past October 10 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 telescope that is part of a NASA funded program. The Minor Planet Center keeps a catalog of near-Earth objects (NEOs) and they consider this fly-by to be the closest pass by such an object until August 2027 when asteroid 1999 AN10, a 2,600 feet wide asteroid, is expected to approach from a distance of 238,000 miles. TB145, estimated to be about 1,300 feet wide, should keep its distance at about 300,000 miles, zipping around at a steady velocity of about twenty-two miles per hour. It will be close enough that Earthlings can view it in the night sky with the aid of a telescope.

The unusual oblong orbit and high velocity has caused some to speculate it may actually be a comet. NASA’s asteroid radar research program will be taking advantage of this opportunity to test new radar imaging technology. As scientists track the asteroid, they expect to capture detailed images that will produce about seven feet per pixel depicting fine details of the asteroid’s surface, shape and other physical properties.

Now, just to put to rest all the excitement the doom and gloomers may want to attempt to raise, “Spaceguard” has officially declared that there are “no known credible impact threats”. Spaceguard is the nickname for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program (NEOO). Scientists involved with this program track asteroids and comets with ground and space telescopes. They discover these objects, catalog their characteristics and study them in order to predict their future paths. Their work helps to determine whether any of these NEOs pose any potential hazard to Earthlings, astronauts deployed to the ISS or to any of the many satellites and bits of technology floating about the cosmos. So, no need to begin the prepping unless that means running out and buying a telescope so you can get a peek at our other-worldly trick-or-treater that will be flying by.

Source & Photo: http://www.nasa.gov

The Tractor That Saved The World


Almost every American knows what John Deere or Massey-Ferguson means, a big green or red tractor that plows up the field. These brand names conjure up images of overalls and boots and twigs of hay being chewed on while whittling on old sticks on a rickety front porch. Rarely would one hear the word tractor and envision a hero who saves the entire civilization of Earth. An event that occurred in 2005 could very well change such stereotypes associated with the word “tractor”.

I was about three-years-old when I got my first ride on a tractor. I was fifteen-years-old when I got to plow my first field all by myself on a big Massey-Ferguson tractor we called the “Wildebeest”. At the time I was actually wearing a dress. I wasn’t supposed to be plowing the field. I was visiting with my grandparents for the summer and had returned home from church and not changed out of my church clothes because I expected we would return for the evening service.

My nanny received a phone call and sent me out to the field with a message folded up on a scrap of paper for Papaw. He read it, hopped off the tractor, left it running, and told me to get up there and finish the job because he had something to do. I looked at him like he had just told me to amputate my leg but I didn’t dare question him. A good girl did as she was told. I’m sure he read every word I was thinking by the expression on my face. He said, “Just follow the lines like your tracing a picture.” That was it. That was all the advice he had. He walked back to the house and never looked back.

I climbed up on the Wildebeest and prayed to God the first thing I touched would simply shut the bastard of a machine down. It didn’t. I tentatively pulled a lever like I had seen Papaw do, put my little foot clad in black patent leather Mary Jane’s on what I assumed was a gas pedal, and rolled away. My rows were a bit wavy when I finished an hour later but I didn’t kill myself or run over the neighbor’s fence.

When I got back to the house, I discovered the phone call had nothing to do with my Papaw at all. It was a friend of Nanny’s from church telling her she left her Sunday School study guide behind. Nanny used it as a ruse to send a note to Papaw that said “Let her drive the tractor.” And that was that, the gringa’s tractor adventures while Nanny and Papaw covertly watched from the window pleased with themselves and thrilled that their little granddaughter was so crazily, courageously entertaining. You know, back in the day when folks didn’t worry about getting Child Protective Services called out if they encouraged their kids to something exhilarating, liberating and life threatening all in the name of a “life skills teaching moment”.

This world saving tractor, however, has nothing to do with planting corn and beets. It doesn’t even have those enormous tires. It’s unlike any tractor humans have ever seen before. It looks more like a fancy Tinker Toy than anything else. Rather than churn up clods of dirt, it will push or pull one gigantic rock through outer space. This technology was first tested by NASA in 2005 as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will ultimately get a human crew to Mars.

Since all mass exerts, as well as is affected by, gravity, it doesn’t take much to influence the orbit of an asteroid that is violating Earth’s personal space. A gravitational tractor doesn’t even have to touch the asteroid to redirect it. It simply has to get close enough to perform a maneuver that would change the orbital path of the asteroid. It’s like having an invisible lasso. That’s why the gringa thinks they should name this tractor in honor of Wonder Woman. Her Lasso of Truth may not have been invisible but her airplane was, so, the gringa thinks there’s enough connection there to rightfully name the tractor Wonder Woman. Also, since the theory works on mutual attraction (gravity), there should be some allusion to the tractor’s attractive sexiness and Wonder Woman was definitely all that.

NASA’s gravity tractor is being developed at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Scientists envision a twenty ton spacecraft propelled by nuclear powered electricity. As gravity causes the asteroid to be attracted to the tractor, thrusters would then propel the tractor to a suitable orbit area for the asteroid. Despite the gringa’s best efforts to dig around for news of a release mechanism, I simply couldn’t find anything on what would happen once a new orbit for the asteroid was established. So, Wonder Woman may be stuck in a lifetime commitment unless they come up with a way to untangle the ties that bind this cosmic relationship.

The gringa asks, how necessary is this project? How much danger are Earthlings in from a huge rock  slamming into our home world and ending life as we know it? Well, out of the 12,000 Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that NASA has on record so far, almost all of them are larger than half a mile in diameter. By tracking their projected orbits, we humans should be safe for at least one hundred years. There are some smaller space rocks that could impact Earth, but are not necessarily big enough to cataclysmically impact humanity. The work we do today is really for the benefit of our great-great-grandchildren.

If anything related to the Universe fascinates you, it may be quite a lark to participate in NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. There are many activities and even prize competitions. The space agency has even developed a software application that can assist amateur astronomers discover and identify new asteroids. To become a part of this grand space adventure visit NASA at http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

Source and Photo Credit:  www.nasa.gov

And The Winning Asteroid Is…


NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) scheduled in the mid -2020s has yet to determine which asteroid they plan to go out and corral into the orbit of our moon. The work is still ongoing to determine the winning asteroid candidate. So far, NASA has narrowed the selection down to the following three candidates: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. It is possible, however, other asteroids could be added to this short list and these current favorites could be eliminated. The gringa feels like it’s a bad scene from a science fiction Bachelor episode.

Since NASA announced its asteroid initiative to the public three years ago, science experts as well as science enthusiasts from all over the world have collaborated in identifying these Big Bang rock leftovers throughout the cosmos.  These efforts have been so successful, detection of near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) has increased by sixty-five percent.

On December 29, 2010,  the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAEA) spacecraft “Hayabusa” returned to Earth with samples from an asteroid they named “Itokawa”. The Japanese led international crew of scientists brought back a chunk of an alien world.  Hayabusa traveled one billion kilometers  for over two years to execute what must be the world’s longest pick-up and delivery service ever. The gringa would not want to pick up the tab for that tip! Five bucks for the pizza guy is my absolute limit! This successful joint mission of multiple nations led by the Japanese was successful in bringing scientists dust particles from another world, the third such achievement the world has ever seen.

Images of Itokawa were taken when the asteroid crossed near Earth in 2005. It’s surface is unique to any others that have been observed because it seems to have no craters. The scientists are really scratching their heads over this little mystery. One hypothesis thinks it’s possible that craters simply cannot form on Itokawa because rather than being a solid rock asteroid, it actually is a junk pile of multiple space rocks and ice chunks held together by gravity. If it gets struck by a meteor, it would just jiggle around. The gringa’s not so sure she holds with this theory, but, hey, I’m not scientist. Who am I to criticize. The asteroid holds other novelties as well. One part of its interior is denser than the other. For the gringa, that sounds like people. The experts will continue their studies and, maybe one day, the world will know the answer to why Itokawa has a hard spot and no pock marks. It almost sounds like a disease.

Another asteroid favorite is Bennu. This little fella seems to have led a hard life. Researchers believe old Bennu (billions of years old) was dismembered by the gravity of multiple planets. Now THAT’S what the gringa calls living in a rough neighborhood. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland has produced an animated video to introduce Bennu. It can be viewed here, on NASA’s website, or on YouTube.

In late 2016 a mission to Bennu is planned to launch. It should take about seven years for samples to be retrieved and then returned to Earth. Scientists suspect that Bennu is made up of chondrules. These are grains of mineral (in other words, space sand) that are held together by gravity and stationary electrical charges to form a solid rock. Scientist want to test their theory by getting their hands on some samples.

Bennu is important because it is like a time capsule which has preserved itself since the Big Bang that gave birth to it. It has not experienced geologic and chemical changes like our Earth. Bennu could possibly be a pristine example of the most primitive material in the entire solar system. This could help the scientific community understand how life began if organic material is present on Bennu that could have the building blocks of terrestrial life, such as carbon and hydrogen.

Bennu is not as dense as a regular Earth rock so it could possibly be hollow. It could be just another pile of rubble like Itokawa. It is also very dark, like asphalt. Because of this, it absorbs lots of sunlight which then creates a radiating effect which causes a reaction a bit like propulsion which affects its orbit. This is known as the Yarkovsky effect. So, basically, Bennu just kind of wanders the galaxy willy-nilly and why it has sometimes had close encounters with Saturn, Venus and Earth. The theory of being a rubble pile then explains why it seems to change shape because, when having a close call with a large planet, the gravitational effect would pull it apart and reshape it.

Now, NASA may call a Bennu encounter a “close call”, but the gringa’s not too worried. There is only a 1 in 2,500 chance that it could impact the Earth in our lifetime. We’ve got plenty of time to develop a planetary defense system that can give Bennu a little poke in the eye if he gets too close and send him on his way again.

The third contender for the asteroid lasso rodeo is asteroid 2008 EV5. Not a very romantic name. The gringa thinks the experts could have come up with something a bit more catchy. March 4, 2008 (big surprise there), the Mount Lemmon Survey in Tucson, Arizona discovered 2008 EV5. This asteroid has an interesting prominent ridge that parallels the rock’s equator, broken only be a depression 150 meters in diameter which is probably an impact crater. The surface seems to be very rocky so, once again, probably a junk heap asteroid made up of carbonaceous chondrite. It could be Bennu’s evil twin.

The gringa has discovered that at this time, 2008 EV5 is the favorite because it seems to be filled with “cobbles” or stones that meet the dimensions best suited for the ARM robotic retrieval system. I am so disappointed that what may be the most important asteroid of my lifetime will not have a clever or catchy name like Itokawa or Bennu. The world will know the final decision sometime in 2019. The gringa is crossing her fingers for an asteroid with a really cool name, like Gringa2015.  A girl can dream, right?!

Sources and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov