Spitzer Space Telescope

NASA Plans to Capture Asteroid In Moon’s Orbit

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

As part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), NASA and cooperative scientists have been searching for a suitable asteroid to capture and redirect into the moon’s orbit for continual research. The ARM spacecraft is proposed to launch in 2019. Once set in orbit, the hands-on examination of the asteroid will begin in the 2020s. The mission has two main focuses: to develop the expertise needed for deep space travel to Mars and beyond, as well as providing an opportunity to test technologies that will keep Earth safe from any possible future asteroid impacts.

There are two concepts set for NASA’s ARM operation: “The first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.”

Recently a $4.9 million award has been offered for concept studies that will lead to the ARM’s success. Starting in July, a six-month research period will begin that addresses the issues of the mission. During this time the technologies, mechanics and resources needed for the mission will be perfected.

As of now, only nine asteroids have been identified that meet the criteria for possible mission nominees. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the most recent asteroid candidate has been identified. The telescope’s “warm” mission began in 2009 once its coolant ran out as planned, and since then Spitzer has been used for more long term and targeted observations. In particular this makes asteroid observation easier as infrared detection is the best way to study less luminous objects.

The recognition of the latest contending asteroid, named 2011 MD, for possible capture as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, was published June 19th, 2014 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Lead author of the study, Michael Mommert of Northern Arizona University says, “From its perch up in space, Spitzer can use its heat-sensitive infrared vision to spy asteroids and get better estimates of their sizes.” To be deemed valid, the asteroid must be both the right size and mass, but also the rotation rate must be considered to make its capture feasible.

2011 MD is one of the lucky asteroids that has met all necessary criteria for redirection. It has a diameter of about three to six meters (10-20 feet) with a density similar to water, this suggests that the asteroid is mostly empty space, as solid rock is usually at least three times denser than water. 2011 MD may either be a singular solid rock with a halo of particles surrounding it or a collection of smaller space rocks held in tandem by gravity. Only further observation will conclude indefinitely what its composition is.

The idea of capturing an asteroid and setting it in orbit around the moon is truly exciting! It will be the first time that humans have achieved such a massive cosmic endeavor. Building a stellar environment that fits our research needs almost seems more science fiction that reality; however, if we wish to take humans into deep space it is a necessary leap to make. Not only is the Asteroid Redirect Mission awesome in its concept, it will prove to be incredibly valuable in a scientific standpoint as well. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, says, “Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in.”

Sources:

NASA, Spitzer Spies an Odd, Tiny Asteroid

NASA, NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids

This article was originally written for and published by From Quarks to Quasars.

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Giving Birth to the Serpent’s Stars

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Revealed in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) is the star-forming region called the Serpens Cloud Core. The cluster shown contains stars that are among the youngest found in our galaxy! Using infrared technology the telescopes captured details from within the stellar breeding ground that were previously unavailable.

By assigning visible colors to the infrared light within the structure, astronomers are able to peer through the fog of gas and dust to observe emerging stars taking shape. “They appear as red, orange and yellow points clustered near the center of the image. Other red features include jets of material ejected from these young stars” (NASA). The nebula’s central cloud, which is chock-full of star birthing ingredients, is colored blue.

Located 750 light-years away in the Serpens (Serpent’s) constellation, this region of space is lacking the existence of super luminous stars. “The core contains a dense, very young, low mass stellar cluster with more than 300 objects in all evolutionary phases, from collapsing gaseous condensations to pre-main sequence stars” (The Serpens Molecular Cloud). Stars, located in the foreground and background of the Serpent, provide most of the pinpricks of light seen in the picture. The formation itself consists of low to moderately sized stars, which appear dimmer in the night sky.

It took an over 16 hours of observation and a compilation of 82 individual photographs to construct the image above. Although the use of light filters makes it possible to examine portions of space that would normally be invisible to us, there is still a region within the Serpens Cloud Core, located to the left, which is too thick for even the infrared filter to penetrate.

By continuing to study such stellar nurseries in detail, scientists can begin to unravel the mystery of how stars with varying masses form within nebulae. It also allows us to understand in, further detail, how chemical composition contributes to the fusion process of star’s lifetime. The evolutionary actions that occur with nebulae contain a wealth of information that can then be applied to future examinations of the cosmos.

 

Written for From Quarks to Quasars, June 12, 2014. For more science news articles check them out!