Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
An asteroid, designated “2014 HQ124” at least 1,200 feet wide on its long axis, passed by Earth on June 8, 2014. It came within 776,000 miles, or approximately three times the distance to the moon. Images captured of the asteroid are some of the most detailed in NASA’s history.
The asteroid was first spotted on April 23, 2014 by NASA’s NEOWISE mission. NEOWISE was adapted for capturing infrared light emitted from comets and asteroids. When 2014 HQ124 was between 864,000 miles and 902,000 miles, NASA began closer observations of the space rock.
[ Watch the Video: Radar Observations Of Asteroid 2014 HQ124 ]
These observations were led by scientists Marina Brozovic and Lance Benner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. Researchers Michael Nolan, Patrick Taylor, Ellen Howell and Alessondra Springmann from Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico were also involved.
“There is zero chance of an impact,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “In fact, it’s fairly common for asteroids to pass near Earth. You’d expect an object about the size of 2014 HQ124 to pass this close every few years.”
By using the 230-foot Deep Space Network antenna and two other radio telescopes, the team was able to capture detailed images of the asteroid as it passed by Earth. The Goldstone antenna sends a radar signal at an asteroid and the other antenna receives the reflection. This greatly improves the detail of images captured by radar.
The first telescope used with the Goldstone antenna was a newly upgraded 1,000-foot Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. A 112-foot antenna located about 20 miles away was used next.
By linking the antenna with the telescopes, high quality detailed images as small as 12 feet wide could be captured.
“By itself, the Goldstone antenna can obtain images that show features as small as the width of a traffic lane on the highway. With Arecibo now able to receive our highest-resolution Goldstone signals, we can create a single system that improves the overall quality of the images,” Benner said.
A total of 21 radar images were captured in a four-and-a-half hour time span. The asteroid rotated a few degrees per frame suggesting a complete rotation in just under 24 hours. The first five images in the collage were images collected by Arecibo from Goldstone. They are 30 times brighter than Goldstone can obtain alone.
The images detailed features including what appeared to be a hill near the middle of the asteroid. “This may be a double object, or ‘contact binary,’ consisting of two objects that form a single asteroid with a lobed shape,” Benner said.
Radar helps researchers determine the objects size, shape, rotation, surface features and orbits along with asteroid’s distances and velocities. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program or “Spaceguard,” discovers these objects and determines if they are a potential threat to collide with Earth.