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NASA Weighs an Asteroid

June 14, 2012; 6:40 AM ET

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has measured the mass of a nearby asteroid millions of miles away. This feat was achieved by Steve Chesley of JPL's Near-Earth Object Program Office by utilizing information from three NASA data sources, the Goldstone Solar System Radar in the California desert, the orbiting Spitzer space telescope and the NASA-sponsored Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Chesley presented his findings Saturday, May 19, at the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 2012 meeting in Niigata, Japan.

For Chesley to figure out the asteroid's mass, he first needed to understand its orbit and everything that could affect it including neighboring heavenly bodies and any forces that the asteroid could cause on its own.

Using remarkably accurate observations collected by astronomer Michael Nolan at Arecibo Observatory in September 2011, Arecibo and Goldstone radar observations made in 1999 and 2005, and the gravitational effects of the Sun, Moon, planets and other asteroids, Chesley was able to calculate how far the asteroid deviated from its anticipated orbit. He found that 1999 RQ36 had deviated from what the math says it should by about 100 miles in the past 12 years. The only logical explanation for this orbital change was that the space rock itself was generating a minute propulsive force known as the Yarkovsky effect.

See this blog here for more information about the Yarkovsly effect and asteroids.

According to NASA, "Asteroid 1999 RQ36 is of special interest to as it is the target of the agency's OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission. Scheduled for launch in 2016, ORIRIS-REx will visit 1999 RQ36, collect samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth."

Information from NASA was used in this blog.

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Astronomy Blog
The AccuWeather.com astronomy blog, by Mark Paquette, discusses stargazing and astronomy issues and how the weather will interact with current astronomy events.