We know Arecibo Observatory for its 305-meter (1000-foot) diameter telescope and its appearances in Goldeneye and Contact. Aside from battling Bond villains and driving red diesel Jeeps around the telescope (grousing at the site director about the funding status of projects is optional), several hundred hours a year of telescope time at Arecibo go toward radar studies of asteroids. Tasked to “find asteroids before they find us”, a group of us four planetary radar astronomers at Arecibo (as well as collaborators and colleagues at institutions outside of Puerto Rico) observes asteroids for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation program. We study the orbits and surface properties of our rowdy neighbors, near-Earth asteroids.
It’s been a pretty exciting week to be an asteroid researcher: you’d think the sky was falling! Really, it was just a confluence of some rowdy neighbors checking in on earth asking, “How’s that space program coming?” An ordinary chondrite meteorite exploded over Russia, and later that day a 150-foot-wide piece of spacerock skimmed 17,000 miles above the earth, just ducking inside the orbits of geostationary satellites.
We had nothing to do with either: the Russia bolide was detected maybe seconds beforehand by some satellites; 2012 DA14 was too low in our sky for Arecibo to observe.
The media guy here is still getting calls, almost a week later. Univision came by, Dish Network wanted to interview someone…
What are we doing in the midst of all this? Regularly scheduled observations of asteroid (99942) Apophis, everyone’s favorite potentially hazardous asteroid that we’ve known about for almost nine years now. None of these recently discovered raucous interlopers for us this week, pshaw. Even so, the events of last week underscore the importance of “finding them before they find us” and commercial solutions to asteroid problems.