Evolution of Asteroid Study

Asteroid

On 13 April 2029, asteroid 99942 (heretofore known as Apophis) is estimated to come within 18,300 miles of the Earth. This alarming distance is even more shocking when one takes into consideration that modern geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth at approximately 26,000 miles. Once the shock has cleared, there is another fact you need to take into consideration: astronomers across the globe are tracking Apophis every day. It is currently labeled as a “0” on the Torino Scale. The Torino Scale is used to categorize the likeness of an asteroid impact on Earth. Read More →

Let’s Explore the Dwarf Planet ‘Makemake’

Astronomers and interested parties have debated back and forth about whether or not Pluto is a planet, but it’s hardly the only controversial object in the sky. Makemake in the Kuiper belt is another object classified as a dwarf planet. Unlike other major astronomical bodies, Makemake is actually named for a Polynesian deity. The name is actually a pun. Makemake is the creator god in the mythology of the inhabitants of Easter Island, and the object was discovered several days after Easter 2005.

The object is 900 miles in diameter and is certainly round enough to be considered a planet. This has caused some people to ask why Makemake isn’t considered to be a planet. In fact, some people might consider the solar system to have as many as 13 planets in its makeup.

While 13 planets might be controversial, Ceres was once considered a planet. Most books call Ceres the largest object in the asteroid belt, but that’s an oversimplification. Some groups call it a failed planet. Had Ceres’ orbit been slightly different, it might have been called a planet between Mars and Jupiter. Some scientists did call it a planet for years, but it’s usually classified as a dwarf planet in modern texts.

Other objects like Haumea and Eris are also candidates for planet classifications in the yes of many astronomers. Some people have even proposed orbital models that make classifying Pluto and Charon as twin planets a distinct possibility. Whether or not these proposals will gain a substantial amount of support among any real number of scientists remains to be seen, but there’s certainly a sizeable body of people who have promoted them.

The term “Trans-Neptunian objects” is sometimes used to describe all major bodies that orbit the sun a measurable distance from Neptune. This classification seems to be based more on political correctness than science, according to some observers. Of course, there are members of the public that reacted to the downgrading of Pluto on purely sentimental reasons. While these mild protests don’t carry much scientific weight, they do illustrate the fact that the public is taking an interest in scientific issues.

Considering that each of these objects may soon be the platform for homesteaders in outer space, people really need to get the classifications in order. Futuristic travel agencies aren’t going to want to debate over what to call their destinations.

Image Credit: International Astronomical Union

Dawn Spacecraft Returns Amazing Results from Astroid Vesta

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn Mission Discussion (Click to Listen to Audio)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is quickly approaching the end of its 10 week mission to study the asteroid Vesta.The spacecraft has been using a framed camera to return the closest photos of an asteroid ever seen. Vesta lies in the doughnut-like ring between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is the second heaviest object in the asteroid belt. The images have shown many small craters some measuring 10 miles in diameter and up to 6 miles deep, small grooves and lineaments. Scientists hope that when the images have been further examined they will better understand the origins of the universe. Scientists have been most amazed at the discovery of a mountain three times taller than Mount Everest. Scientists have found that over half of the surface of Vesta is so cold and receives so little sunshine that ice could have survived there for billions of years (see image below).

Early examination of the information collected by Dawn including gravity mapping, gamma rays and neutron analysis along with the photos have led scientist to believe that the asteroid was formed by a large impact. Scientists feel that ice could be present beneath the surface at either pole. However, these poles see more sunlight than the equator. Temperatures at the pole are believed to hover near minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists are using the mission to explore the role water played in early planet and asteroid formation.

Reference:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/news/dawn20120125.html
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/multimedia/gallery-index.html
http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/

Image Credit: Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA