Asteroid-hunting facility receives $19M grant from NASA


The asteroid-hunting Arecibo Observatory has received a new NASA grant worth $19 million, in order to keep serving as the planet’s asteroid guardians.

The 1,000-foot radio telescope has been in service since the mid-1960s, having served a variety of uses, from determining the rotation period of Mercury to transmitting a bitmap image to hypothetical extraterrestrials 25,000 light-years away.

However, the Arecibo Observatory’s most unique asset is that it is one of the few astronomical view stations that is dedicated to search and detect any potential threats from celestial bodies such as asteroids and comets from making an impact on Earth.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) manages the Arecibo Observatory facility on behalf of the National Science Foundation and is stationed in Puerto Rico The main collecting dish is 1,000 feet (305 meters) in diameter, which is constructed inside the depression left by a karst sinkhole.

The Arecibo Observatory is situated in Puerto Rico and its main collecting dish is constructed inside the depression left by a karst sinkhole.
Source: UCF

In general, NASA awarded UCF the $19 million grant to observe and characterize near-Earth objects that could pose a potential threat to the planet or maybe viable candidates for future space missions.

Particularly, asteroids identified within 5 million miles (8 million km) of Earth’s orbit are considered potentially hazardous by NASA. While that could seem like too big of a distance, astronomers also consider the asteroid’s orbit and potential gravity that could result in it to make an impact with Earth.

These threat-posing asteroids or popularly known as near-Earth objects or NEOs has since been detected by the Arecibo Observatory since the 1990s.

Approximately, the observatory discovers about 60 to 120 of these objects every year.

The funding given by the space agency to the Arecibo Observatory should help in collecting data and determining if one of these NEOs pose a threat to Earth in the future. These data should also help NASA in formulating solutions on how to mitigate the potential risk.

Arecibo Observatory scientists. Lead scientist Anne Virkki (center) reviews images with research scientist Flaviane Venditti (left) and postdoctoral scientist Sean Marshall (right)
Source: UCF

As humanity ventures out more to explore space, people have also been recognizing that we are not in a constant bubble of safety but an open target for these threats.

Statistically, small asteroids sweep near Earth all the time. It’s not unusual for a small asteroid to sweep closer to us than the moon. Scientists estimate that several dozen asteroids in the 6– to 12-meter (20- to 39-feet) size range fly by Earth at a distance closer than the moon every year. However, only a fraction of these are detected.

Just last month, an asteroid dubbed a “city killer”almost crashed on Earth and scientists barely noticed. Traveling at 15 miles per second, the giant space rock designated as Asteroid “2019 OK” missed Earth by just 45,000 miles. To put that into perspective, the moon is about 240,000 miles away.

In the coming four years, under terms of the new grant, they will use the big dish at Arecibo Observatory for up to 800 hours a year to find and analyze NEOs, including both asteroids and small comets.

“Arecibo plays an important role in the discovery and advancing our knowledge of our solar system and our universe,” Francisco Cordova, observatory director, said in the statement.

“We also play a critical role in helping to protect our planet through providing knowledge and unique expertise. It’s part of our mission and one of the reasons we are so passionate about our work.”

On the other hand, humanity doesn’t have to mainly rely on one observatory to defend ourselves from threats coming from space.

Although Arecibo was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 and lauded for its powerful capability of hunting down NEOs, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) now considerably beats the former and should be able to provide more significant data.

Still, nonetheless, Arecibo remains to be a powerful tool for professional research not just in radar studies of NEOs but also for radio astronomy and atmospheric studies.

The data collected by the observatory also help NASA in determining which asteroids could be fit for a space mission, how to land on an asteroid and potentially mine its raw material.

“We can use our system to constrain the size, shape, mass, spin state, composition, binarity, trajectory, and gravitational and surface environments of NEOs and this will help NASA to determine potential targets for future missions,” Anne Virkki, the Arecibo planetary radar program’s principal investigator, said in the statement.

Furthermore, the grant will also go towards supporting STEM education for high school students through an education program at the Science, Technology, and Research (STAR) Academy in Puerto Rico, providing classes for 30 high school students per semester where they will learn about the science and research conducted at the observatory across 16 sessions.

Notably, the new grant – a four-year, $19M award – comes on the heels of a 4-year, 12.3M grant, announced earlier this month, for emergency supplemental funds for upgrades and repairs to the facility, needed especially in recent years as multiple hurricanes have swept across the Caribbean, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

The combination of the two grants puts Arecibo solid footing, for now.

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