Asteroid That Came Near Earth Was Really Two Objects Orbiting Each Other

This radar image of binary asteroid 2017 YE5 comes from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.                  Arecibo  GBO  NSF  NASA  JPL-Caltech

But this isn't the only way a binary asteroid can be put together.

While the asteroid goes around the sun on an elliptical path every 4.74 years - it takes it 1,730 days to complete a full orbit, notes Science Alert - and is bound to swing back really soon, it will be another 170 years before it comes as close to Earth as it did last month. The effort confirmed the two lobes are separated and orbiting around one another. The fact that the last observation used the time of the closest approach of the asteroid to Earth when he flew a distance of about 6 million kilometers.

During its fly-by, NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar (GSSR) in California detected something unexpected - two distinct mounds jutting out of its body. However, if both asteroids are of equal size, the two asteroids orbits around each other as the foci of their orbit sit in empty space.

Then the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia did something fantastic: using a technique called "bi-static radar configuration" Arecibo broadcasted a radar signal to detect 2017 YE5, which Green Bank then received.

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A bi-static radar image of the binary asteroid 2017 YE5 from the Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory on June 25, 2018. This means that 2017 YE5 reflects less light than your typical rocky asteroid and "is likely as dark as charcoal", states NASA.

The reflectivity differences also appear in the Arecibo images and hint that the two objects may have different densities, compositions near their surfaces, or different surface roughnesses. According to NASA, of the family of near-Earth asteroids larger than 650 ft (200 m) in diameter, approximately 15 percent consist of binary asteroids like Didymos, where one smaller asteroid circles around a larger one.

The December 2017 observation by the Morocco Oukaimeden Sky Survey could find out much about the properties of 2017 YE5. When the asteroid was originally discovered, in December, scientists thought it was smaller. Analysis of the combined radar and optical observations may allow scientists to estimate the densities of the 2017 YE5 objects, which will improve understanding of their composition and internal structure, and of how they formed. Arecibo bounced its radar signal off the object and Green Bank recorded the return signal. GBO is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under a cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. At the time, scientists didn't know of any physical properties. They also collaborate with global space agencies and institutions that are working to track and better understand these smaller objects of the Solar System.


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