‘Anybody Want A Peanut?’ Radar Images Of Asteroid 2006 DP14

This image is one frame from a collage of radar images taken on Feb. 11, 2014, of near-Earth asteroid 2006 DP 14, which is about 1,300 feet (400 meters) long. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

On Feb. 10, asteroid 2006 DP14  zipped by Earth at six times the distance of the moon or 1.5 million miles (2.4 million km). One night later, astronomers used the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network radar antenna at Goldstone, Calif. to beam radio waves at the fleeing space rock and “take pictures” of it by measuring the returning radio echoes. At the time, the asteroid had receded to 11 times the moon’s distance.

Imagine their pleasant surprise when they discovered it was shaped like a giant space peanut.1,300 feet (400 m) long by 660 feet (200 m) wide. By the way, the headline refers to a famous rhyme by Andre the Giant in the movie The Princess Bride.

Radar movie shows asteroid 2006 DP14 rotating. The images were gathered over 2.5 hours and shows details as small as 60 feet across

Each lobe was probably a separate asteroid at one time. Circumstances allowed them to migrate toward one another through their mutual gravitational attraction, creating what astronomers call a “contact binary”. Ten percent of near-Earth asteroids larger than about 650 feet (200 m) have contact binary shapes. This tells us that there were times and places in the solar system (and may still be) where asteroids moved slowly enough relative to one another to join together. Just a hunch, but maybe it happened routinely in the solar system’s youth, helping to build the planets and larger asteroids.

Gaussian blur applied to the radar photo of 2006 DP14 reveals the smaller end of the peanut better as well as adding more three dimensionality to a couple crater-like depressions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

As a little experiment to show the 2006 DP14’s topography and peanut shape more clearly, I apply a blur filter in Photoshop to the original image.

While this sounds counterintuitive, blurring removes the confusing pixelation and lets us see the essentials more clearly. At least to my eye. What do you think?

Radar is the best technique yet for resolving asteroid shapes, surface details and rotation rates. It can also pinpoint a space rock’s position with great precision, improving the accuracy of asteroid orbit calculations much farther into the future. This is critical to determining if a near-Earth object might become a collision threat or if will safely miss our planet.

6 Responses

  1. Time to call Engleland to ask them to thaw Austin Powers again as Dr Evil’s “Big Boy” space cryogenic capsule is back on the radar screen.
    I hope his cat made it okay 😉

  2. Bob Crozier

    Why don’t we have some kind of space-based system for doing these sorts of things? I suppose radar might require more power than could reasonably be used on a space-based vehicle, but what about some form of laser or other kinds of directed energy? Do you know of any plans for such a thing?

    Also, I was curious as to why they waited until the asteroid was nearly 50% further away than its closest approach before scanning it with the radar? Why not scan it during approach, at closest approach and while it receded?

    As always, I appreciate your blog!

    1. astrobob

      The asteroid would have been too far south to observe from Goldstone’s location. It was up and still relatively close on the date the images were made. We probably don’t have a space-based system because it would cost a lot of money. Not that there aren’t ideas in the works, including a space-based probed to look for incoming asteroids on the other side of the sun. Right now we’re blind in that direction because of … sunlight. All space projects have to compete for limited money available. Teams can spend years and lots of bucks trying to get their projects approved. Don’t know about lasers but sounds like a great idea.

      1. Bob Crozier

        Hmm, is Goldstone the only place that can this kind of imaging? Is there nothing in the southern hemisphere that could do this kind of thing, or something similar?

        1. astrobob

          Goldstone and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (18 degrees north) are the only places I’ve heard of that image nearby asteroids. Another factor in all of this is getting time scheduled at a particular observatory to do an observing run. Sometimes there are conflicts as other astronomers have previously reserved telescope time.

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