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New Images of Near-Earth Asteroid Phaethon

December 28, 2017
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New Images of Near-Earth Asteroid Phaethon

Astronomers capture images of the second-largest asteroid in Earth’s proximity. The asteroid Paethon might be “potentially hazardous”.

Astronomers concluded the new observations at the Arecibo Observatory from December 15 through 19, 2017.

This asteroid is the parent body of the Geminid meteor shower of mid-December.

On December 16, at its closest, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon was 6.4 million miles (10.3 million kilometers) away, the nearest it will be until 2093.

Through radar images, astronomers can now distinguish never-before-seen characteristics of the asteroid.

The images, captured at a resolution of 250 feet (75 meters) per pixel, reveal the asteroid is spheroidal in shape and has a larger body than previously thought.

“These new observations of Phaethon show it may be similar in shape to asteroid Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, but more than 1,000 Bennus could fit inside of Phaethon,” said Patrick Taylor, Universities Space Research Association (USRA) scientist and group leader for Planetary Radar at Arecibo Observatory, in a press release.

“The dark feature could be a crater or some other topographic depression that did not reflect the radar beam back to Earth.”

“Potentially Hazardous”

Astronomers categorize Paethon as a “potentially hazardous” asteroid because of its large size and close proximity to Earth. It’s the second largest object with that designation.

“Arecibo is an important global asset, crucial for planetary defense work because of its unique capabilities,” said Dr. Joan Schmelz, deputy director of Arecibo Observatory and a scientist at the Universities Space Research Association.

“We have been working diligently to get it back up and running since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.”

Hurricane Maria minimally damaged Arecibo’s structure. However, The observatory was able to reestablish radio astronomy observations within a few days of the storm. But radar technology wasn’t up and running until commercial power was restored in early December.

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Thumbnail image: Astronomers at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico took radar images of the large asteroid Phaethon as it passed close to Earth this month. Credit: Arecibo/NASA/NSF

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