NAU Astronomers Nix Asteroid for NASA Mission

NASA asteroid 225

Early this year, NASA announced a bold robotic mission to capture an asteroid in a bag and return the rock to Earth orbit so it could be studied. The mission could serve as training and testing for astronauts en route to an eventual trip to the moon and Mars using the Orion spacecraft. 

But a team of Northern Arizona University astronomers have shown that the asteroid NASA has been using as a reference target (2009 BD) is not a suitable candidate. Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, the astronomers showed that the space rock is just 10 to 13 feet in diameter. It would fit into the average garage. They presented the research at the December 2013 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco and submitted it for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

The asteroid’s diminutive size is likely too tiny to work as a target for the $2.6 billion Asteroid Redirect Mission. The space agency has said it wants an asteroid closer to about 20 feet across . . . . “We didn’t see it. It was too faint to be detected in our data,” said David Trilling, NAU Assistant Professor of Astronomy.  “We know it has to be smaller than some size or we would have been able to see it.”

The researchers were able to combine their own observations with what was seen of asteroid 2009 BD when it squeaked between the Earth and the moon in 2011. . . . “Although we didn’t see it, we can constrain its properties quite well,” said Michael Mommert, NAU post-doctoral researcher."This tells us something about the population we knew nothing before about.” . . .

There are other candidate asteroids, so Trilling said it is not a big deal for NASA to settle on one of the other 13 candidates on its published list. But those too, have not been studied in detail. . . . Mommert and Trilling will look at the next asteroid on the list in February, named 2011 MD, to see if it might be a suitable candidate.

--Eric Betz, article excerpted from the Arizona Daily Sun.