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Nudging an asteroid

Scientists have made a discovery about an asteroid named “6489 Golevka,” that may help them to better predict asteroids’ travel routes through the solar system. Researchers generated this image of 6489 Golevka by measuring how radiowaves bounced off the asteroid's surface. Image courtesy of NASA.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Scientists have made a discovery about an asteroid named "6489 Golevka" that may help them to better predict asteroids' travel routes through the solar system. Most of the asteroids in the solar system cruise along an asteroid highway called the "main belt" that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Every now and then, one will take a detour onto another path that carries them towards the center of the solar system. These objects may then become "near-Earth asteroids" if they come within 121 million miles (195 million kilometers) of the sun. The chances of a large near-Earth asteroid hitting Earth are extremely small, and none of the asteroids that scientists are now tracking will hit Earth any time soon. Still, scientists do want to be able to predict that paths that near-Earth asteroids will take.

One of the influences upon an asteroid's path is called the "Yarkovsky effect," which can give an asteroid a gentle nudge out of the main belt. This effect occurs when the sun heats certain parts of an object's uneven surface more than other parts. Once the Yarkovsky effect has caused an asteroid to exit off the main-belt highway, the asteroid can potentially get redirected into the inner solar system, towards Earth. At least, that's what scientists have been thinking should happen. They haven't actually observed the Yarkovsky effect on a real space object until now.

Steven Chesley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his colleagues detected the Yarkovsky effect using radar measurements of 6489 Golevka taken by telescopes in Puerto Rico and California. More studies of this effect on Golevka and other asteroids will help clarify our understanding their past, present and future travel routes. The study appears in the 5 December issue of the journal Science.


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