Scientists at the Arecibo Observatory help unravel the mystery of the surprising asteroid

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

After receiving a warning, the radar scientists sang in to the asteroid, emerging from Earth’s blind spot — solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to take as many radar readings as possible. It traveled so fast, that’s all the time she would have it in Arecibo’s sights. UCF operates the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a partnership agreement.

The asteroid made headlines because it appeared to come out of nowhere and was traveling fast.

Zambrano-Marin’s findings were published in the Planetary Science Magazine June 10, just a few weeks before the world observes Asteroid Day, which is June 30, is raising global awareness to educate the public about these potential threats.

“It was a real challenge,” said Zambrano-Marin, a UCF planetary scientist. “No one saw it until it practically passed by, so when we got the alert we had very little time to act. Still, we were able to capture a lot of valuable information.”

It turned out that the asteroid was between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and was moving quickly. It ran at 3 to 5 minutes. That means it’s part of just 4.2 percent of known fast-rotating asteroids. This is a growing group that, according to the researchers, needs more attention.

The data indicates that the asteroid is likely a C-type, which is made up of clay and silicate rocks, or S-type, which is made up of silicate and nickel iron. C-type asteroids are among the most abundant and some of the oldest in our solar system. S-type are the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is now inspecting the data collected through Arecibo’s Planetary Radar database to continue her research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team can leverage the existing database spanning four decades. Science operations continue in the space and atmospheric sciences, and staff are refurbishing 12-meter antennas to continue astronomical research.

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

Nearly 30,000 asteroids are known to exist, according to the Center for Near Earth Studies, and while few pose an immediate threat, there’s a chance one of significant size could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. Therefore, NASA closely monitors and system to detect and characterize objects once they are found. NASA and other nations of space agencies 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 reroute one way to Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus Professor of Physics Humberto Campins, will return to Earth with a sample from asteroid Bennu, leaving scientists with a few surprises. Bennu was first sighted in Arecibo in 1999. A new mission – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission – aims to demonstrate the ability to reroute an asteroid using the kinetic energy of an projectile. The spacecraft was launched in November 2021 and is expected to reach its target – the Dimorphos asteroid – on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of Arecibo’s team are working to educate the scientific community about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to come up with emergency 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 science museum in 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 tracks celestial bodies for NASA. Its closest approach is on June 25 with an object coming within 475,000 miles of Earth. In comparison, the moon is about 239,000 miles from Earth.

Zambrano-Marin holds multiple degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in applied physics from the Ana G. Mendez University System and a master’s degree in space sciences 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 an advisor to the president of Caribbean University. In addition to working on the planetary radar group in Arecibo, Zambrano-Marin also created the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, an 18-week research program for pre-college students in Puerto Rico.

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

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