Uncover the mystery of the sudden asteroid – the barrel towards Earth from the blind spot

There are approximately 30,000 known asteroids, according to the Center for Near Earth Studies. While a few of them pose an immediate threat, there is a chance that one of the larger ones will hit the ground and cause catastrophic damage. That’s why the work of researchers like Luisa Fernanda Zambrano Marin from the University of Central Florida is so important.

When asteroid 2019 OK suddenly appeared toward Earth on July 25, 2019, Luisa Fernanda Zambrano-Marin and the team of astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico quickly got to work.

After receiving an alert, radar scientists identified the asteroid that was approaching Earth’s blind spot – opposing the Sun. Zambrano Marine and the team only had 30 minutes to collect as many radar readings as possible. The asteroid was traveling really fast, and this was the whole time she was getting her sights set from Arecibo. The University of Central Florida (UCF) operates the US National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory under a cooperative agreement.

As the asteroid appeared to come out of nowhere and was traveling very fast, it made headlines.

Zambrano-Marin results were published on June 10 in the newspaper Planetary Science Journaljust weeks before the world celebrates Asteroid Day, which is June 30, and is working to promote global awareness to help educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” says Zambrano Marin, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “No one saw it until after it practically passed, so when we received the alert, we had very little time to act. However, we were able to obtain a lot of valuable information.”

Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Telescope was a 305 m (1,000 ft) spherical reflecting radio telescope built in a natural crater at the Arecibo Observatory located near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The image appears here in the spring of 2019 before its collapse at the end of 2020. Credit: UCF

It turned out that the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles (0.06 and .13 km) in diameter and was moving fast. It orbited 3 to 5 minutes, which means it’s a fraction of only 4.2 percent of known fast-spinning asteroids. This is a growing group that scientists say needs more attention.

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

To continue its investigation, Zambrano-Marin is currently examining data acquired by the Arecibo Planetary Radar database. Despite the fact that the observatory telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team will be able to use the existing data bank, which covers four decades. Scientific operations continue in the fields of space and atmospheric sciences, and staff are renovating 12-meter antennas to continue astronomical research.

Luisa Fernanda Zambrano Marine

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

“We can use new data from other observatories and compare it to the observations we’ve made here over the past 40 years,” says Zambrano-Marin. “Radar data not only helps confirm information from visual observations, it can help us determine physical and dynamic properties, which in turn can give us insight into appropriate diffraction techniques if they are needed to protect the planet.”

There are approximately 30,000 known asteroids according to the Center for Near Earth Studies, and while a few pose an immediate threat, there is a possibility that one of the larger sizes could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. For this[{” 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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