MRO Tracks Asteroid Near Mars, Dec. 21, 2007

by George Zamora

The latest data, including data provided by MRO, indicate that the asteroid will miss Mars. For details, see JPL release

SOCORRO, N.M., Dec. 21, 2007 – New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) is already making its mark in the annals of astronomy research after being recently tasked by NASA to make detailed observations of an asteroid that is now given a 1 in 75 chance of hitting Mars on January 30, 2008.

On Tuesday afternoon, December 18, MRO researchers began tracking the asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, with the research facility’s 2.4-meter telescope. The observations taken by MRO that evening are directly responsible for increasing the probability of an impact from about 1 in 350 to 1 in 75, resulting in the current level of excitement about this celestial object.

MRO is located near the summit of the 10,800-foot Magdalena Mountains in south-central New Mexico, about 26 miles west of the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

“It was quite surprising to all of us at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory when we received an emergency request from NASA to point our telescope at this particular asteroid, which had only been discovered last month,” said Eileen Ryan, MRO 2.4-meter telescope project scientist and manager.

“We’ll resume tracking 2007 WD5 on December 26th, when it re-appears from its current trajectory which has taken it behind the Moon,” Ryan said. “We’re all thrilled to be playing a significant role in this latest NASA project.”

If the asteroid, which measures about 160 feet across, does impact with Mars next month, the event would be considered a “scientific bonanza,” NASA scientists said, since an asteroid impact with a planet has never been observed — the closest thing being the 1994 collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter.

“Moreover, if this collision with Mars does happen, seeing two impacts occur on major planetary bodies in the course of a decade or so reinforces the point that the Near-Earth Object (NEO) risk is more than just the subject of Hollywood movies,” said Ryan.

Since NASA now has the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently mapping the planet, Ryan said, NASA scientists will be able to maneuver the orbiter into position to image an impact event if one does occur. In addition, NASA's two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, may also be able to take pictures from the surface of Mars.

“If a body this size impacts Mars, the resulting crater could be as large as a half a mile in diameter,” Ryan related.

The MRO is primarily intended for astronomical research and includes two distinct facilities — a single 2.4-meter-diameter telescope and a moveable array of up to ten 1.4-meter-diameter telescopes linked together to form a single optical interferometer.

Initial research projects being conducted with the MRO 2.4-meter telescope are more along the lines of “classical astronomy,” MRO scientists said, and include an ongoing study of small bodies in our own Solar System, primarily near-Earth objects such as asteroids.

Research at MRO also is ongoing in the area of space situational awareness, characterizing artificial objects in the near-Earth zone to contribute to national security efforts for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

“The MRO operates one of the largest telescopes in the world that is currently undertaking as a primary mission the observation and physical characterization of near-Earth objects,” said Ryan.

In addition, with MRO’s extensive and unprecedented capabilities, astrophysicists also are able to better study and understand the processes of star and planet formation, stellar accretion and mass loss, and active galactic nuclei.

New Mexico Tech is the lead institute of a research-university consortium that was formed to design, develop, construct, test, and operate the MRO. Additional members of the international consortium include the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, University of Puerto Rico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For more information about New Mexico Tech’s MRO project, log onto the research facility’s website at www.mro.nmt.edu.