High Resolution Radar at Arecibo Observatory Reveals Asteroid as a Beauty, Not a Beast

June 12, 2014

Arecibo and NASA Scientists using Earth-based radar have produced sharp views of a recently-discovered asteroid as it slid safely past our planet. Taken on June 8, 2014, the new views of asteroid 2014 HQ124 are some of the most detailed images of a near-Earth asteroid ever obtained with Arecibo Observatory and Goldstone Solar System Radar.

Arecibo, Puerto Rico (PRWEB) June 12, 2014

On Sunday, June 8, 2014, asteroid 2014 HQ124 safely passed Earth a little over three times the distance from Earth to the Moon (about 1.3 million kilometers or 800,000 miles). Arecibo Observatory, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, together with the Goldstone Solar System Radar observed HQ124 nine hours after the closest approach.

Radar images of 2014 HQ124 show an elongated asteroid with an irregular surface at least 370 meters (1200 feet) in size, slightly larger than the 305-meter (1000 foot) Arecibo Observatory dish. This asteroid spins on its axis in approximately 20 hours.

“These radar observations show that the asteroid is a beauty, not a beast,” said Alessondra Springmann, a data analyst at Arecibo Observatory, noting the complex structure of the asteroid and its peanut shape visible in the radar data.

Most radar experiments involve one radio telescope transmitting signal to the asteroid, then receiving reflected radio waves from the asteroid. Scientists observing asteroid 2014 HQ124, directed the 70-meter (230-foot) Goldstone—also known as DSS-14—to transmit to the asteroid, then the 305-meter (1000-foot) Arecibo Observatory collected the reflected waves. “We used two telescopes because that combination allowed us to get images with twice as much detail as Arecibo could achieve otherwise,” said Lance Benner, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the radar observations at Goldstone.

Arecibo Observatory and Goldstone radar facilities are unique among telescopes on Earth for their ability to resolve features on asteroids, while most optical telescopes on the ground would see these cosmic neighbors simply as unresolved points of light.

Newly-installed hardware at Arecibo allowed it to combine the 3.75-m resolution of the Goldstone radar transmitter with the unmatched sensitivity of the 305-m Arecibo telescope, providing the first high-resolution radar images of an asteroid with this level of clarity from any radar system. Arecibo and Goldstone scientists hope to regularly implement this new system for studying near-Earth asteroids.

Radar astronomers Michael Nolan and Ellen Howell lead the observations of HQ124 from Arecibo, along with staff members and three summer students participating in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. In addition to Benner, Marina Brozović, Joseph Jao, and Clement Lee of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech carried out radar observations from Goldstone.

In addition to receiving signal from Goldstone DSS-14, Arecibo Observatory transmitted while four Very Long Baseline Array (also funded by NSF) telescopes in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona collected the returned signal. “Using multiple telescopes to track the motion of an asteroid's radar echo across the Earth, we can determine its rotation independently of radar imaging,” said Michael Busch, a radio astronomer involved with the observations at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. “This resolves ambiguities in the radar images and is essential for long-term trajectory prediction.”

Image: Radar delay-Doppler images of asteroid 2014 HQ124. The Earth and radar transmitter are toward the top of each frame. Each frame has the same orientation, delay-Doppler dimensions, resolution (3.75 m by 0.0125 Hz), and duration (10 minutes). Arecibo images appear on the top row and Goldstone images appear on the other rows: Arecibo Observatory capabilities eliminated the “snow” visible in the other images.There is a gap of about 35 minutes between rows 1 and 2. Credit: Marina Brozović and Joseph Jao, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech/NASA/USRA/Arecibo Observatory/NSF.

Located in Puerto Rico, the Arecibo Observatory is home to the world’s largest and most sensitive single-dish radio telescope at 305 meters (1000 feet) across. This facility dedicates hundreds of hours a year of its telescope time to improving our knowledge of near-Earth asteroids and comets.

For more images and information on asteroid 2014 HQ124, see the Arecibo Observatory’s planetary radar pages:



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About Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Observatory is operated by SRI International in alliance with Ana G. Méndez-Universidad Metropolitana and the Universities Space Research Association, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (AST-1100968). The Arecibo Planetary Radar program is supported by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation program.

The Arecibo Observatory is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

About USRA

Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is an independent, nonprofit research corporation where the combined efforts of in-house talent and university-based expertise merge to advance space science and technology. USRA works across disciplines including biomedicine, astrophysics, and engineering and integrates those competencies into applications ranging from fundamental research to facility management and operations. USRA engages the creativity and authoritative expertise of the research community to develop and deliver sophisticated, forward-looking solutions to Federal agencies and other customers – on schedule and within budget.

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