Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Asteroid passes inside moon's orbit, buzzes Earth - Secret spaceplane blasts off for mystery mission

Some Interesting Developments:

Near Earth Object Zooms past Earth.  Direct Impact would have caused damage to 800 sq. mi.
Undetected Until Sunday?

What's up with the Secret Mini Shuttle?  
Movie Shoot?  Scare the Chinese?  Intercept?

Connection?

Stay Alert.
-MP

Asteroid passes inside moon's orbit, buzzes Earth - Space.com

By Mike Wall / Space.com/ December 11, 2012, 3:40 PM

A screenshot showing one day of the orbit diagram for near-Earth asteroid 2012 XE54, which passed within the moon's orbit on Dec. 11, 2012. / NASA/JPL-Caltech
A newfound asteroid gave Earth a close shave early today, zipping between our planet and the moon just two days after astronomers first spotted it.

The near-Earth asteroid 2012 XE54, which was discovered Sunday (Dec. 9), came within 140,000 miles of our planet at about 5 a.m. EST Tuesday (Dec. 11), researchers said. For comparison, the moon orbits Earth at an average distance of 240,000 miles or so.

Astronomers estimate that 2012 XE54 is about 120 feet wide — big enough to cause substantial damage if it slams into Earth someday. An object of similar size flattened 800 square miles of forest when it exploded above Siberia's Podkamennaya Tunguska River in 1908.
Asteroid 2012 XE54 also passed through Earth's shadow a few hours before its closest approach, generating an eclipse on the space rock's surface, researchers said. [Video: Asteroid 2012 XE54 Flies Closer Than Moon]



"Asteroids eclipsing during an Earth flyby are relatively rare," astronomer Pasquale Tricarico, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., wrote in a blog post Monday (Dec. 10).

The first known case, Tricarico added, was "asteroid 2008 TC3 which was totally eclipsed just one hour before entering Earth's atmosphere over Sudan in 2008, and asteroid 2012 KT42 experiencing both an eclipse and a transit during the same Earth flyby in 2012."

2012 XE54 will be coming back to Earth's neighborhood before too much longer. The asteroid completes one lap around the sun every 2.72 years.

Scientists have discovered about 9,000 near-Earth asteroids to date, but perhaps a million or more such space rocks are thought to exist.

And some of them are potentially dangerous. Observations by NASA's WISE space telescope suggest that about 4,700 asteroids at least 330 feet wide come uncomfortably close to our planet at some point in their orbits.

So far, researchers have spotted less than 30 percent of these large space rocks, which could obliterate an area the size of a state if they slammed into Earth.

But there are much bigger asteroids out there, such as 4179 Toutatis, a 3-mile-wide behemoth that's in the process of flying by Earth now. Toutatis will remain 4.3 million miles away during its closest approach Wednesday morning, but it may come closer on future passes.
Toutatis would inflict devastating damage if it slammed into Earth, perhaps extinguishing human civilization. The asteroid thought to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was about 6 miles wide, researchers say.

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+


Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Space.com. All rights reserved.

Big Asteroid Tumbles Harmlessly Past Earth- NASA




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Dec. 12, 2012: This week, NASA's Goldstone radar is tracking a large asteroid as it passes by Earth, and obtaining unusually clear images of the tumbling space rock.
"There is no danger of a collision with Earth," says Lance Benner of NASA's Near Earth Object Program. "At closest approach on Dec. 12th, asteroid 4179 Toutatis will be 7 million km away or 18 times farther than the Moon."
Toutatis (splash)
A sampling of Goldstone radar images obtained during the asteroid Toutatis's Dec. 2012 flyby. [more]

Asteroid Toutatis is well known to astronomers; it passes by Earth’s orbit every 4 years. Measuring 4.5 km in length, it is one of the largest known potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs), and its orbit is inclined less than half-a-degree from Earth's. No other kilometer-sized PHA moves around the Sun in an orbit so nearly coplanar with our own.  This makes it an important target for radar studies.
NASA's Goldstone radar in the Mojave Desert will be pinging the space rock every day from Dec. 4th through 22nd.  The echoes highlight the asteroid's topography and improve the precision with which researchers know the asteroid's orbit.
The Edge (signup)
"We already know that Toutatis will not hit Earth for hundreds of years," says Benner.  "These new observations will allow us to predict the asteroid's trajectory even farther into the future."
Benner and colleagues are particularly excited about a new digital imaging system at Goldstone that could reveal never-before-seen details on the asteroid's surface. "Using the new system, we can now image the asteroid's surface with 2 to 5 times finer resolution than previous flybys," he says. "We may we see something new on Toutatis."

The asteroid is already remarkable for the way that it spins. Unlike planets and the vast majority of asteroids, which rotate in an orderly fashion around a single axis, Toutatis travels through space tumbling like a badly thrown football (movie).  One of the goals of the radar observations is to learn more about the asteroid’s peculiar spin state and how it changes in response to tidal forces from the Sun and Earth.
Toutatis (Goldstone, 200px)
NASA's 70-meter diameter Goldstone radar. [more]

It's probably no coincidence that the tumbling asteroid is elongated and lumpy. 
"Toutatis appears to have a complicated internal structure," says radar team member Michael Busch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. "Our radar measurements are consistent with the asteroid's little lobe being ~15% denser than the big lobe; and they indicate 20% to 30% over-dense cores inside the two lobes."

This raises the interesting possibility that asteroid Toutatis is actually a mash up of smaller space rocks.  "Toutatis could be re-accumulated debris from an asteroid-asteroid collision in the main belt," he says.   The new observations will help test this idea.
Busch points out that the upgraded Goldstone imaging system will produce data with a resolution of 3.75 meters per pixel.  "We'll be putting hundreds of thousands of pixels across the asteroid's surface."
What will so much resolution reveal? Stay tuned for updates from Science@NASA.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips| Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

>>>Seriously, Are we in a Movie Shoot?

Secret spaceplane blasts off for mystery mission

AP/ December 11, 2012, 5:01 PM

Technicians inspect the military X37-B spaceplane after its June 2012 landing, which completed the vehicle's second trip to orbit.
Technicians inspect the military X37-B spaceplane after its June 2012 landing, which completed the vehicle's second trip to orbit. / USAF/Boeing
The military's small, top-secret version of the space shuttle rocketed into orbit Tuesday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.


The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket. As if on cue, clouds quickly swallowed up the rocket as it disappeared out over the ocean.

It is the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. The craft circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.


These high-tech mystery machines -- 29 feet long -- are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA's three-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency's shuttles.


The military isn't saying much if anything about this new secret mission known as OTV-3, or Orbital Test Vehicle, flight No. 3. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight and a news blackout followed.


But one scientific observer, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites. He dismisses rumors of "exotic ideas" for the X-37B as weaponry or shadowing a Chinese satellite.


While acknowledging he does not know what the spaceplane is carrying, McDowell said on-board sensors could be capable of imaging or intercepting transmissions of electronic emissions from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan or other hot spots. "All the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do," he said.


The beauty of a reusable spaceplane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.


What's important about this flight is that it is the first reflight.


"That is pretty cool," McDowell said, "reusing your spacecraft after a runway landing. That's something that has only really been done with the shuttle."


Now retired museum pieces, NASA's space shuttles stretch 122 feet long, and have 78-foot wingspans and weights of more than 170,000 pounds. They were launched, from 1981 to 2011, with two strap-on booster rockets and an external fuel tank feeding three main engines. The X-37B wingspan is 15 feet, and the 11,000-pound, Boeing-built vessel requires the United Launch Alliance's hefty Atlas V for hoisting. It is solar powered.


The two previous secret X-37B flights were in 200-plus-mile-high orbits, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator, as calculated by amateur satellite trackers. That means the craft flew over the swatch between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.

That puts Russia's far north out of the spaceplane's observing realm, McDowell noted.


"It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States," he said.


McDowell speculates that this newest flight will follow suit.


The International Space Station, by comparison, orbits about 250 miles (400 kilometers)high but at a much steeper 51.6-degree inclination, or angle to the equator, that covers more territory.


The X-37B program, which dates back to 1999, is operated by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and geared toward space experimentation.


Some scientists - like Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists - argue the Air Force could accomplish the same objectives by using cheaper, more efficient spacecraft that either burn up on entry or parachute down.


"The ability to return to Earth carries a high price," Grego said in a statement.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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