Could P/2010 A2 be the First Ever Observation of an Asteroid Collision?

Something rather bizarre was observed in the asteroid belt on January 6. Ray Villard at Discovery News has just posted an exciting article about the discovery of a comet… but it’s not your average, run-of-the-mill kinda comet. This comet appears to orbit the Sun, embedded in the asteroid belt.

Comets don’t usually do that, they tend to have elliptical and inclined orbits, orbits that carry them close to the Sun (when they start to heat up, creating an attractive cometary tail as volatile ices sublimate into space, producing a dusty vapor). They are then flung back out into the furthest reaches of the Solar System where the heating stops and the comet tail disappears until the next solar approach.

But P/2010 A2 — discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey — has a circular orbit and it still appears to be venting something into space.

P/2010 A2 (LINEAR): A comet or asteroid debris? (Spacewatch/U of Arizona)

There is the possibility that it is a member of a very exclusive bunch of objects known as main belt comets (MBCs). MBCs are confused asteroid/comet hybrids that appear to spontaneously vent vapor and dust into space and yet stay confined to the asteroid belt. But, if P/2010 A2 is confirmed to be one of these, it will only be the fifth such object to be discovered.

So what else could it be? If the potential discovery of an MBC doesn’t excite you enough, it could be something else entirely: the dust produced by a hyper-velocity impact between two asteroids. If this is the case, it would be the first ever observation of an asteroid impact in the Solar System.

The asteroid belt isn’t the same asteroid belt you might see in science fiction; although there are countless rocky bodies in our asteroid belt, it is rare that these rocky bodies encounter each other. Space is very big, and although the density of asteroids in this region might be considered to be “high”, this is space we’re talking about, you can fly a spaceship through the region without having to worry that you’ll bump into something. The average distance between asteroids is huge, making it a very rare occurrence any two should hit. But given enough asteroids, and enough time, eventually asteroid collisions do happen. And in the case of P/2010 A2, we might have been lucky.

Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.
Asteroid collisions: Rare, but possible.

The chatter between comet/asteroid experts is increasing, and on one message board posting, Javier Licandro (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain) reports observing a secondary asteroid traveling with the cloud-like P/2010 A2.

The asteroid moves in the same direction and at the same rate as the comet,” reports Licandro on The Minor Planet Mailing List. “In addition, the P/2010 A2 (LINEAR) image does not show any central condensation and looks like a ‘dust swarm’.”

A short lived event, such as a collision, may have produced the observed dust ejecta.”

Therefore, this ‘comet’ may actually be the debris that was ejected after a collision between two asteroids. Although these are preliminary findings and it’s going to take some serious observing time to understand the true nature of P/2010 A2, it’s exciting to think that we may just have observed an incredibly rare event, 250 million miles away.

Source: Discovery News

xkcd: Probably Not The Best Way To Deal With An Asteroid

asteroid_xkcd

I hope we never see this day in the future, when the newscaster calmly informs us that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth.

In any case, if this scenario did unfold, I’d like to think we’ll have the in-space technological capability to deal with the threat — but if we didn’t, I’m sure we’d work on it pretty damn quickly (given enough warning… if not… well, I’m out of ideas).

But please… don’t go strapping a nuclear warhead to the rock… it might not end quite so well.

Source: xkcd

Mining Asteroids: Not At Those Overheads

Where shall we start diggin'?

In The Future™, when mankind is Sufficiently Advanced®, nations, companies and entrepreneurs will be shuttling huge cargo spaceships to and from the asteroid belt. Asteroid mining is going to be the first REAL gold rush, “thars gold in them thar rocks!” But not only gold, we’ll be able to consume asteroids of all their constituents; platinum, iridium and silicon (silicon?). Global economies will be flooded with a new-found wealth being fed by the new Solar System’s bounty. Times will be good, after all, this is The Future™.

Although asteroid mining looks good on paper, once you do a little bit of adding up, you suddenly realize it’s actually one hell of an undertaking. Looking at the economics of asteroid mining is especially daunting, and believe me, my co-author Greg Fish has done the number crunching.

When Greg and I started out researching our book, Astroeconomics: Making Money from the Vacuum of Space, we initially made the assumption that the key way to make vast wads of cash in space is from asteroid mining. This assumption was purely based on… well, an assumption. A quick glance on the various space advocacy websites will demonstrate just how accepted asteroid mining is as a future industry. After all, science fiction has been telling us this for years. Given a sufficiently advanced technology, we’ll be able to build a spaceship, with a mining platform, send it to the asteroid belt (obviously a very short distance), fill up the cargo hold with ore (or, if we are that advanced, refined precious metals) and be back on Earth by a week next Friday.

However, when we looked at the situation, we decided to focus on the economics of the beast (in all honesty, Greg did the calculations, I can barely balance my own books, let alone the books of an entire space-faring industry).

Naturally, we assume it’s going to be businesses (not governments) wanting to mine asteroids, and we assume mining/spaceflight technologies that could possibly be available within the next few decades (and no, we didn’t consider nanotech; I’m thinking rock-eating nanobots wont be available in stores for a long while yet). We also assumed these space mining companies will want to make a profit (we might be wrong). Unfortunately, asteroid mining doesn’t make an awful lot of sense from a business perspective. The risk is too high, the overheads are whopping, and the payback — while impressive — won’t pay the bills. And then there’s nasties like space pirates and industrial accidents to consider, adding to the ‘risk’ factor.

All in all, it’s not a very attractive business proposition to build a mining fleet and send it on an interplanetary joyride; most businesses would rather set up a mining installation in the middle of Antarctica. But we’re not pouring cold water on the whole venture either, we’ve worked out a few ways future businesses can actually turn asteroid mining into an industry.

So, today, Greg contributed a guest article to my “other” blog, Space Disco on Discovery Space. If you want to find out more about the ins and outs of asteroid economics, have a read of Mining Asteroids And Getting Rich (Or Not)

Enjoy!

Asteroid Tanning in the Solar Wind Salon

Asteroids tan fast in the solar wind (ESO)

In a study carried out by European Southern Observatory (ESO) scientists, it was found that asteroids are susceptible to sunburn. By comparing the material found inside meteorites here on the ground with the colour of asteroids floating in space, there is a huge difference; the asteroids in space are redder.

So far, this might not be too surprising, after all, the surface of Mars is red with ferrous oxides (rust), why shouldn’t asteroids be red too? Actually, asteroids aren’t necessarily made of the same stuff as Mars, and they aren’t getting tanned due to the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; asteroids are bathed in ionizing solar wind particles, causing the asteroid’s surfaces to redden over a period of time. And that period is short when compared with Solar System time scales. It only takes a million years for the surface of young asteroids (born from energetic asteroid collisions) to weather under the constant barrage of particles from the solar wind.

This has some interesting implications for asteroid studies. Possibly the most striking factor this study uncovers is the nature of near-Earth asteroids that have been observed exhibiting comparatively “young” surfaces, apparently free from solar wind reddening. Previously, astronomers have agreed that these young surfaces were down to recent asteroid collisions. However, the period of the solar wind tanning effect is much shorter than asteroid collision frequency. So even if two asteroids collided, in all likelihood, if we observed one of these asteroids, the solar wind would have weathered the surface back to its reddened state.

It turns out that some near-Earth asteroids have “young” surfaces due to gravitational interactions with planets as they pass. When this happens, the red dust is “shaken off”, revealing the untouched rock beneath.

For more, check out my article Young Asteroids Age Fast with a Solar Wind Tan on the Universe Today.

What Will Happen When the Sun Turns into a White Dwarf?

Strong tidal interactions are thought to shred any asteroids or comets as they get too close to a white dwarf (NASA)

All the way back in January, I had the great fortune to attend the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) conference in Long Beach, California. I had a lot of fun. However, between the free beer and desperately searching for wireless Internet signal, I also did some work. During my travels, I spent some time browsing the poster sessions, trying to get inspiration for an article or two. You’d think that when presented with hundreds of stunning posters that inspiration wouldn’t be that far away. However, I was repeatedly frustrated by information overload and defaulted to a clueless meander up and down the pathways walled with intense science debates.

But then I saw it, right at the end of one of the poster walls, a question that got my imagination bubbling: “Will The Sun become a Metal Rich White Dwarf After Post Main Sequence Evolution?” The Sun? After the Main Sequence? Metal rich? To be honest, these were questions I’d never really pondered. What would happen when the Sun turns into a white dwarf? Fortunately, I had Dr John Debes to help me out with the answers…
Continue reading “What Will Happen When the Sun Turns into a White Dwarf?”

Apollo Astronaut Highlights Threat of Asteroid Impact

In a renewed attempt to bring the concern about a potential asteroid strike to the world’s attention, former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart briefed UN officials on Tuesday about a report entitled “Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response.” The report has been drawn up by the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation (IPATM), formed by space explorers and scientists in an effort to put a contingency plan into action to limit the devastation caused by a theoretical impact.

The key point here is that the IPATM is not predicting an immediate catastrophic asteroid collision, it merely wants the UN to recognise there is a danger out there and to enact procedures to save lives and possibly remove the threat all together…
Continue reading “Apollo Astronaut Highlights Threat of Asteroid Impact”

Tonight’s Paranormal Radio Show Postponed

Tonight for my monthly Paranormal Radio slot, Captain Jack and I will be having a discussion about the threat of asteroids and comets to the Earth. It’s not a question of if we’ll get hit by an extinction-level event, it’s a question of when

Due to technical problems with the “voice of darkness” in the depths of Texas, tonight’s show about asteroids and interplanetary shooting galleries will have to be postponed for a couple of days. I hope it’s got nothing to do with those damn aliens or 2012 activists… Anyhow, for some reason Jack had to drive to Dallas, breaking all sorts of land-speed records, to buy a server…?!

Watch this space, I’ll update you with news as I get it…

In the mean time, check out the breadth of news items about space, politics, conspiracies, big foot and ghostly happenings at WPRT Radio

Rare Meteor Fireball Captured by Seven Canadian Cameras (Videos)

The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)
The slow-moving fireball lights up Canadian skies (SOMN)

A stunning series of videos from seven all-sky cameras in the The University of Western’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network (SOMN) captured the same fireball generated by a meteor entering the atmosphere pre-dawn on the morning of September 15th. Whilst meteors aren’t uncommon (if you hang around outside for long enough you might see one or two “shooting stars” yourself), this fireball was very bright and had a surprisingly slow velocity. What’s more, astronomers think that the extraterrestrial object came from a typical Earth-crossing orbit, possibly indicating this was another small near-Earth asteroid. In fact, meteorite hunters believe that it may have slowed significantly when passing through the atmosphere, dropping fragments to the ground. A great catch by the Canadian team, let’s get searching!
Continue reading “Rare Meteor Fireball Captured by Seven Canadian Cameras (Videos)”

Asteroids (1) : Earth (2) – Welcome to the Interplanetary Shooting Gallery

Rocks are being thrown at us, but we haven’t noticed

Artist impression of an asteroid impact - don't worry, this doesn't happen very often... (Getty Images)
Artist impression of an asteroid impact - don't worry, this doesn't happen very often... (Getty Images)

On October 7th, a small asteroid called 2008 TC3 exploded in the skies above Sudan. On October 9th, a metre-wide asteroid named 2008 TS26 buzzed Earth’s atmosphere by only 7000 km. Then on the 21st (Tuesday) a slightly bigger piece of rock called 2008 US missed us by 25,000 km. It sounds like it’s getting dangerous out there, especially when considering the last recorded object (2004 FU162) to come screaming past the Earth (at 6500 km) happened in 2004.

But don’t be concerned. Small asteroids are being thrown at us all the time; asteroid hunters are just getting better at spotting them…
Continue reading “Asteroids (1) : Earth (2) – Welcome to the Interplanetary Shooting Gallery”