Asteroid Science

Uncovering the Origins of the Solar System.

There are thousands of asteroids in near-Earth space and millions in the Main Belt, diverse in their physical properties and compositions, each a time capsule of the early Solar System. Along with the small moons of Mars, many of these small bodies are in strategic locations for planetary science, resource mining, defense/security, and as interplanetary depots. Most appear to be covered in loose surface regolith, and many are represented by meteorites found on Earth.

The scientific and practical importance of asteroids is represented by 7 current missions in various phases: Dawn, Psyche, Lucy, Hayabusa2, OSIRIS-REx, DART/Hera and MMX. Still, landing on a small body is a complex challenge (e.g. the fate of Rosetta’s Philae ) and so is manipulating the surface material in any way. Our ignorance about asteroid surface geomechanics is a strategic knowledge gap that slows down further exploration, making landings either risky, or highly limited, or both.

Asteroid science covers three central themes namely geohistory that has shaped the origins of our solar-system, surface processes that resulted in the formation of complex organics, a pre-requisite for life on Earth and finally asteroid observation and impact studies.

In terms of asteroid observation, Dr. Cotto-Figueroa and the undergraduate students of her research group use the 31-inch NURO telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona once per academic semester in order to obtain photometric data of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and Binary Stars for their research projects. An asteroid photometry campaign has been initiated with the intent of obtaining light curves of NEAs in order to determine their rotation periods. The rotation rate distribution of NEAs can give us important information about their material strength and composition. NASAcam, a 2K x 2K thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera, is used on the 31-inch National Undergraduate Research Observatory (NURO) telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to obtain the photometric data. To date, over twenty-five NEAs have been observed. Each object was observed using an R-band filter for no more than four hours in one night. The exposure time is typically 30 seconds and random time delays are inserted in order to avoid problems with aliasing. The data reduction and analysis of the data is conducted using the Image Reduction and Analysis Facility (IRAF) and the Minor Planet Observer (MPO) Canopus program.