Near-Earth Objects (NEO) have long been a dilemma for scientists, especially since the discovery of 99942 Apophis in 2004. Apophis was first believed to be heading directly towards earth, and created a bit of a stir when people realized that it could hit earth in 2029. However, since then, due to several recalculations and lucky happenstances, the asteroid has only a 1 in 45,000 chance of hitting earth.
Pound for pound, comets are much more dangerous than asteroids, which have nonetheless gotten more media attention. Comets travel a lot faster through space than Asteroids, which travel at about 25-30 km per second. The speed of a comet approaches a much faster 70 km per second. A relatively small object of just one and a half km in diameter hitting the Earth would release more energy than all the atomic bombs ever detonated and then some. An object of 20 km or more would likely cause mass extinction.
A massive dark, asteroid dubbed 1998 QE2 will make its closest pass to Earth on May 31 at 1:59 p.m.
Its 1.7 miles long; its surface is covered in a black substance. If it impacted Earth, it would probably result in global extinction. Good thing it is just making a flyby. Scientists are not sure where this unusually large space rock, which was discovered 15 years ago, originated. But the mysterious sooty substance on its surface could indicate it may be a result of a comet that flew too close to the sun, said Amy Mainzer, who tracks near-Earth objects at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada Flintridge, Calif. It might also have leaked out of the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, she said.
In 2016, NASA will launch a robotic probe to one of the most potentially hazardous of the known NEOs. The OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid (101955) Bennu will be a pathfinder for future spacecraft designed to perform reconnaissance on any newly-discovered threatening objects. Aside from monitoring potential threats, the study of asteroids and comets enables a valuable opportunity to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the source of water on Earth, and even the origin of organic molecules that lead to the development of life.
NASA recently announced developing a first-ever mission to identify, capture and relocate an asteroid for human exploration. Using game-changing technologies advanced by the Administration, this mission would mark an unprecedented technological achievement that raises the bar of what humans can do in space. Capturing and redirecting an asteroid will integrate the best of NASA's science, technology and human exploration capabilities and draw on the innovation of America's brightest scientists and engineers.
Observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission indicated the family of asteroids some believed was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs is not likely the culprit, keeping open the case on one of Earth's greatest mysteries.
Scientists are confident a large asteroid crashed into Earth approximately 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and some other life forms on our planet, hiwever, they do not know exactly where the asteroid came from or how it made its way to Earth. A 2007 study using visible-light data from ground-based telescopes first suggested the remnant of a huge asteroid, known as Baptistina, as a possible suspect.
According to that theory, Baptistina crashed into another asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter about 160 million years ago. The collision sent shattered pieces as big as mountains flying. One of those pieces was believed to have impacted Earth, causing the dinosaurs' extinction.
Since this scenario was first proposed, evidence developed that the so-called Baptistina family of asteroids was not the responsible party. With the new infrared observations from WISE, astronomers say Baptistina may finally be ruled out.
"As a result of the WISE science team's investigation, the demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off. With infrared light, WISE was able to get a more accurate estimate, which throws the timing of the Baptistina theory into question."
WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. The asteroid-hunting portion of the mission, called NEOWISE, used the data to catalogue more than 157,000 asteroids in the main belt and discovered more than 33,000 new ones.
Visible light reflects off an asteroid. Without knowing how reflective the surface of the asteroid is, it's hard to accurately establish size. Infrared observations allow a more accurate size estimate. They detect infrared light coming from the asteroid itself, which is related to the body's temperature and size. Once the size is known, the object's reflectivity can be re-calculated by combining infrared with visible-light data.
The NEOWISE team measured the reflectivity and the size of about 120,000 asteroids in the main belt, including 1,056 members of the Baptistina family. The scientists calculated the original parent Baptistina asteroid actually broke up closer to 80 million years ago, half as long as originally proposed.
This calculation was possible because the size and reflectivity of the asteroid family members indicate how much time would have been required to reach their current locations -- larger asteroids would not disperse in their orbits as fast as smaller ones. The results revealed a chunk of the original Baptistina asteroid needed to hit Earth in less time than previously believed, in just about 15 million years, to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.
"This doesn't give the remnants from the collision very much time to move into a resonance spot, and get flung down to Earth 65 million years ago," said Amy Mainzer, a co-author of a new study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal and the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Calif. "This process is thought to normally take many tens of millions of years." Resonances are areas in the main belt where gravity nudges from Jupiter and Saturn can act like a pinball machine to fling asteroids out of the main belt and into the region near Earth.
The asteroid family that produced the dinosaur-killing asteroid remains at large. Evidence that a 10-kilometer (about 6.2-mile) asteroid impacted Earth 65 million years ago includes a huge, crater-shaped structure in the Gulf of Mexico and rare minerals in the fossil record, which are common in meteorites but seldom found in Earth's crust.
In addition to the Baptistina results, the NEOWISE study shows various main belt asteroid families have similar reflective properties. The team hopes to use NEOWISE data to disentangle families that overlap and trace their histories.
"We are working on creating an asteroid family tree of sorts," said Joseph Masiero, the lead author of the study. "We are starting to refine our picture of how the asteroids in the main belt smashed together and mixed up."
In 2010, NASA's NEOWISE mission completed its survey of small bodies, asteroids and comets, in our solar system. The mission's discoveries of previously unknown objects include 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs). The NEOs are asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of Earth's path around the sun.
NEOWISE is an enhancement of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission that launched in December 2009. WISE scanned the entire celestial sky in infrared light about 1.5 times. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets close to Earth.
In early October 2010, after completing its prime science mission, the spacecraft ran out of the frozen coolant that keeps its instrumentation cold. However, two of its four infrared cameras remained operational. These two channels were still useful for asteroid hunting, so NASA extended the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission by four months, with the primary purpose of hunting for more asteroids and comets, and to finish one complete scan of the main asteroid belt.
"Even just one year of observations from the NEOWISE project has significantly increased our catalog of data on NEOs and the other small bodies of the solar systems," said Lindley Johnson, NASA's program executive for the NEO Observation Program.
Now that NEOWISE has successfully completed a full sweep of the main asteroid belt, the WISE spacecraft will go into hibernation mode and remain in polar orbit around Earth, where it could be called back into service in the future.
In addition to discovering new asteroids and comets, NEOWISE also confirmed the presence of objects in the main belt that had already been detected. In just one year, it observed about 153,000 rocky bodies out of approximately 500,000 known objects. Those include the 33,000 that NEOWISE discovered.
NEOWISE also observed known objects closer and farther to us than the main belt, including roughly 2,000 asteroids that orbit along with Jupiter, hundreds of NEOs and more than 100 comets.
More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects is available at: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/ , http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch and via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/asteroidwatch .
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