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Researchers at the Arecibo Observatory are helping to unravel the mystery of surprising asteroids

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

After receiving a warning, the radar scientists zoned in on the asteroid, which came from the Earth’s dead spot – solar opposition. Zambrano-Marin and the team had 30 minutes to get as many radar readings as they could. It traveled so fast, it’s all the time she had it in Arecibo’s sight. UCF manages the Arecibo Observatory for the US National Science Foundation under a collaboration agreement.

The asteroid got the headlines because it seemed to be coming from nowhere and was traveling fast.

Zambrano-Marin’s results were published in Planetary Science Journal June 10, just weeks before the world celebrates Asteroid Day, which is June 30 and promotes global awareness to help 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 alarm we had very little time to act. Nevertheless, we were able to capture very valuable information.”

The asteroid was found to be between 0.04 and 0.08 miles in diameter and moving rapidly. It rotated for 3 to 5 minutes. This means that it is part of only 4.2 percent of the known fast-rotating asteroids. This is a growing group that researchers believe needs more attention.

Data indicate that the asteroid is likely to be a C-type, which consists of clay and silicate rocks, or S-type, which consists of silicate and nickel-iron. C-type asteroids are among the most common and some of the oldest in our solar system. S-type is the second most common.

Zambrano-Marin is now inspecting data collected through Arecibo’s Planetary Radar database to continue its research. Although the observatory’s telescope collapsed in 2020, the Planetary Radar team can take advantage of the existing database, which spans four decades. Scientific activities continue in the areas of space and atmospheric science, and the staff is upgrading 12-meter antennas to continue with astronomy research.

“We can use new data from other observatories and compare them with the observations we have made here over the last 40 years,” says Zambrano-Marin. “Radar data not only helps confirm information from optical observations, but it can help us identify physical and dynamic properties, which in turn can give us insights into appropriate deflection techniques if needed to protect the planet.”

There are nearly 30,000 known asteroids according to the Center for Near Earth Studies and although few pose an immediate threat, there is a chance that one of significant size could hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage. This is why NASA keeps an eye and system for detecting and characterizing objects once they are found. NASA and other space organizations have launched missions to explore terrestrial asteroids to better understand what they are made of and how they move in anticipation of having to divert a course to Earth in the future.

The OSIRIS REx mission, which includes UCF Pegasus professor of physics Humberto Campins, is on its way back to Earth with a sample of the asteroid Bennu, which gave scientists some surprises. Bennu was first observed at Arecibo in 1999. A new mission – NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission – aims to demonstrate the ability to redirect an asteroid using the kinetic energy of a projectile. The spacecraft was launched in November 2021 and is expected to reach its target – the asteroid Dimorphos – on September 26, 2022.

Zambrano-Marin and the rest of the team at Arecibo are working to provide the research community with more information about the many types of asteroids in the solar system to help arrive at contingency plans.

This week, the team at Arecibo Observatory is holding a series of special events as part of the Asteroid Day campaign. They include presentations, “ask a scientist” stations for those visiting the Science Museum in Arecibo, and June 25 presentations on the DART mission in English and Spanish. The timing could not be better because there are five known asteroids from the size of a car to a Boeing 747 that will buzz on Earth before Asteroid Day, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which keeps track of NASA’s celestial bodies. The next approach is on June 25 with an object coming within 475,000 miles of the earth. By comparison, the moon is about 239,000 miles from Earth.

Zambrano-Marin holds several degrees, including a Bachelor of Applied Physics from the Ana G. Mendez University System and a Master’s degree in Space Science from the International Space University in France. She has published more than 20 articles and is a frequent speaker and speaker at conferences around the world. She has previously worked at the Vatican Observatory and as a consultant 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 preschool students in Puerto Rico.

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

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