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Arecibo Observatory Spies An Asteroid Close To The Sun

This radar image of asteroid 3200 Phaethon is the sum of two obtained at the Arecibo Observatory on Dec 8,2007. Source: Arecibo/Cornell.
by Staff Writers
Ithaca NY (SPX) Jan 02, 2008
The paint is dry and it's time for science: After receiving its first fresh, full coat of paint in more than 40 years, Cornell University's Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico - the scientific actor with a title role in the James Bond film "Goldeneye" - made its first observation in more than six-months at 6:36 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007. The Arecibo telescope spied an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon.

The asteroid - if it is one - travels close to the sun. But here's the catch: Astronomers suspect that Phaethon may actually be a comet and a possible parent of the Geminid meteor shower, which annually causes many streams of shooting stars between now and Christmas.

Phaethon and other asteroids that have trajectories strongly affected by sunlight, sun shape and general relativity effects are being studied by Jean-Luc Margot, Cornell assistant professor of astronomy and Jon Giorgini, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.. Mike Nolan, an Arecibo staff scientist, conducted the observation.

Asteroid orbits are influenced by the absorption and reemission of solar energy - or the so-called Yarkovsky effect.

These changes to the asteroidal motion will be quantified with the Arecibo radar measurements to understand the properties of near-Earth asteroids. This is one of dozens of projects now underway at the observatory.

Paintbrushes down: The six-month project - the first time the Arecibo platform and focal-point structure had received a thorough painting - ended in November of this year. Since then a skeletal crew of observatory staff worked around the clock to bring the radio telescope and the planetary radar back to astronomical life.

Now, the observatory is fully functional, as all motion, electronic, transmitting and receiving, and computing systems are operating.

"It is ready to return to the task of carrying out the scientific observations for the many thousands of hours of approved research programs that will keep the telescope very busy for the next several years," said Robert Brown, director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, a national research center operated by under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

As part of Arecibo's history, the observatory detected the first pulsar in a binary system in 1974, which lead to confirmation of Einstein's theory of general relativity and a Nobel Prize for astronomers Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor in 1993.

Also, Arecibo has provided Hollywood filmmakers with a unique backdrop, as it was featured in the James Bond film "Goldeneye" and in the film "Contact," which was based on a novel by the late Cornell astronomy professor Carl Sagan.

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