Asteroid 2003 SD220 will safely fly past Earth on Dec. 24 at a distance of 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers). Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have generated the highest-resolution images to date of this asteroid using the Deep Space Network's 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at Goldstone, California. The radar images were acquired between Dec. 17 and Dec. 22, when the distance to this near-Earth object (NEO) was narrowing from 7.3 million miles (12 million kilometers) to almost the flyby distance.
"The radar images data suggest that asteroid 2003 SD220 is highly elongated and at least 3,600 feet [1,100 meters] in length," said Lance Benner of JPL, who leads NASA's asteroid radar research program. "The data acquired during this pass of the asteroid will help us plan for radar imaging during its upcoming closer approach in 2018."
Three years from now, the asteroid will safely fly past Earth again, but even closer, at a distance of 1.8 million miles (2.8 million kilometers). The 2018 flyby will be the closest the asteroid will get to Earth until 2070, when it is expected to safely fly past our planet at a distance of about 1.7 million miles (2.7 million kilometers).
"There is no cause for concern over the upcoming flyby of asteroid 2003 SD220 this Christmas Eve," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for NEO Studies at JPL. "The closest this object will come to Santa and his eight tiny reindeer is about 28 times the distance between Earth and the moon."
Radar has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids. When these primitive denizens of the solar system pass relatively close to Earth, radar is a powerful technique for studying their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features and roughness, and for improving the calculation of their orbits.
JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency's Science Mission Directorate.
Source: NASA press release
The seafaring explorers of the 16th century famously found many new homes for humanity in faraway, unknown corners of the world. While it may seem that such colonisation has since ground to a halt, some have argued it is only a matter of time before humans start moving to “exoplanets” in foreign star systems. But how close are we to such an expansion?
In February of 2017, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of seven rocky planets around the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Not only was this the largest number of Earth-like planets discovered in a single star system to date, the news was also bolstered by the fact that three of these planets were found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone.
The study of extra-solar planets has turned up some rather interesting candidates in the past few years. As of August 1st, 2017, a total of 3,639 exoplanets have been discovered in 2,729 planetary systems and 612 multiple planetary systems. Many of these discoveries have challenged conventional thinking about planets, especially where their sizes and distances from their suns are concerned.
Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer astronomers have constructed the most detailed image ever of a star — the red supergiant star Antares. They have also made the first map of the velocities of material in the atmosphere of a star other than the Sun, revealing unexpected turbulence in Antares’s huge extended atmosphere. The results were published in the journal Nature.
How chemical reactions on a lifeless planet floating around in the cold darkness of space can suddenly give rise to living organisms is one of the biggest questions in science. We don’t even know whether the molecular building blocks of life on Earth were created here or whether they were brought here by comets and meteorites.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
Decades after Enrico Fermi’s uttered his famous words – “Where is everybody?” – the Paradox that bears his name still haunts us. Despite repeated attempts to locate radio signals coming from space and our ongoing efforts to find visible indications of alien civilizations in distant star systems, the search extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has yet to produce anything substantive.
In 2013, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia spacecraft. As the successor to the Hipparcos mission, this space observatory has spent the past three and a half years gathering data on the cosmos. Before it retires sometime next year (though the mission could be extended), this information will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D astronomical map ever created.
The Universe is an extremely big place. As astronomers looked farther into space over the centuries, and deeper into the past, they came to understand just how small and insignificant our planet and our species seem by comparison. At the same time, ongoing investigations into electromagnetism and distant stars led scientists to deduce what the the speed of light is – and that it is the fastest speed obtainable.
NASA’s orbiter Cassini will make a series of decreasing orbits that will end in a fiery death dive into Saturn’s atmosphere in September. This deliberate termination of a still serviceable spacecraft is to comply with “planetary protection” protocols, designed to minimise the risk of depositing stowaway Earth microbes into an environment where they might be able to reproduce.