Monster Asteroid 'Pinged' As It Buzzes Earth

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As the U.S. consumed itself in campaigns and ballots, scientists using NASA’s 70-meter wide Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., released images of something that should put all of our Earthly politics into perspective.

Over three days, Goldstone “pinged” a 1.6-kilometer (1-mile) wide asteroid that approached our planet from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30. The huge space rock, called 2007 PA8, was 9 million kilometers (5.6 million miles) from Earth on Oct. 30. It made closest approach on Nov 5. (Monday), coming within 17 times the Earth-moon distance (4 million miles or 6.5 million kilometers).

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Although the orbit of 2007 PA8 is well known and is not considered a threat to Earth in the near-term, it is classified as a “near-Earth asteroid.” NASA took the opportunity to grab these invaluable radar observations of the asteroid as this is the closest the space rock will come to Earth for the next 200 years.

In these images — a result of radio waves (emitted from the Goldstone antenna) reflected off the asteroid’s surface — the irregular shape of the object can be easily seen. Also, ridges and (possibly) craters are evident. The asteroid has a rotational period of 4 hours and these observations are of 2007 PA8′s north pole.

The Goldstone observations are a part of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, or “Spaceguard,” where objects are discovered, characterized and tracked. Above all, Spaceguard identifies potential threats to our planet.

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So, as the world eagerly awaits the results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, it’s worth remembering our solar system is buzzing with massive chunks of rock that, if their orbits start to drift too close to Earth, political rhetoric will quickly become irrelevant. Unfortunately, politics currently drive space exploration and research budgets, of which we can expect little change no matter which president is voted in — although the Obama Administration’s plan to send a manned mission to an asteroid has my vote.

Source: NASA/JPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini

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