Asteroid Arrives Early for Puerto Rico’s Asteroid Day Celebrations

Asteroid Day 2019

This map from the University of Hawaii shows the predicted path of the Asteroid 2019 MO that exploded just south of Puerto Rico last week. Credit: Larry Denneau (IfA/ATLAS, Brooks Bays (SOEST).
Planetary Sciences Asteroid Arrives Early for Puerto Rico’s Asteroid Day Celebrations

Sometimes you get more attention arriving early to the party than fashionably late.

Today, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico hosted a celebration for Asteroid Day 2019, but one space rock made a surprise early appearance. On June 22, at around 5:25 pm local time, an explosion was detected in the atmosphere over the Caribbean just 230 miles (380 km) south of Puerto Rico.

The explosion was imaged by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES-16 satellite and airwaves were measured by an infrasound station in Bermuda. It was later confirmed that 12 hours before the explosion, the ATLAS and Pan-STARRS surveys had detected a small asteroid with a likely impact path over the Caribbean. The Nexrad weather radar in San Juan, Puerto Rico, also detected the object as it vaporized in Earth’s atmosphere.

In the history of asteroid impacts, this is only the 4th time an asteroid has been observed in space before entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The asteroid, now named 2019 MO, was about 4 meters across - slightly smaller than the size of a Volkswagen Beetle..

Asteroid Day 2019 Asteroid Day is an international event designed to bring public awareness about asteroids, impacts like the one spotted last week, and the ways to defend the Earth against future, potentially more dangerous asteroid collisions. Today the Ángel Ramos Foundation Science and Visitors Center at the Arecibo Observatory offered a variety of activities to raise awareness. These included talks in Spanish and English led by Luisa Zambrano and Dylan Hickson, a meteorite demonstration from the vice president of the Caribbean Astronomical Society (SAC), Eddie Irizarry, plus hands-on asteroid building activities. The Arecibo Observatory Visitor Center has a permanent exhibition of meteorites collected from different locations, including Mexico, Argentina, Burkina Faso, United States, and Namibia. Some of the objects are as old as the age of the Solar System and fell to the Earth between 5,000 - 30,000 years ago, and were once used by ancient civilizations to create knives and other tools.

Why Celebrate in Puerto Rico? The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has a deep connection with what scientists know about asteroids. It also plays a critical role in defending the planet against potentially destructive asteroid impacts. The Arecibo Observatory is home to the most powerful, most sensitive, and most active planetary radar system in the world. When using the radar technique to study an asteroid, a radio signal is beamed from the observatory towards that object. The way the radio signal bounces back from that asteroid informs scientists about the shape, size, and how the asteroid is spinning. And, much like a radar speed gun used to catch speeding cars, radar observations from the Arecibo Observatory give extremely precise information about the speed and direction of an asteroid. These measurements are crucial when assessing whether an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and if it poses a threat to the planet.

What’s in a name? As one of the few objects scientists have observed both in space and in Earth’s atmosphere, 2019 MO will be referred to with several different technical names. When it comes to how scientists describe these objects, the naming system is like realty – it is all about location, location, location!

Image credit: Southwest Research Institute/NASA

Asteroids are rocky or metallic objects that are in space. They can be as small as the size of a kitchen table, or larger than the width of the entire island of Puerto Rico. Smaller objects in space that likely broke off from a comet or asteroid are called meteoroids. A meteor is the light phenomenon observed in the sky as an asteroid or meteoroid vaporizes in Earth’s atmosphere. If you’ve ever wished upon a shooting star, you have actually observed a meteor. When an asteroid or meteoroid explodes in the atmosphere, it is often referred to as a bolide. If any part of the object makes it through the atmosphere and lands on the ground, those pieces are then called meteorites. In the case of 2019 MO, it was uniquely observed as both an asteroid and bolide. Any surviving meteorites may be difficult to find, since most of them are likely to have fallen into the Caribbean Sea.

Impact Frequency According to NASA 80 – 100 tons of material from space fall on the Earth in the form of harmless dust and meteorites every day. An innocuous asteroid the size of 2019 MO is expected to enter the Earth’s atmosphere approximately once per year. Telescope surveys continually search the sky for larger, Potentially Hazardous Asteroids that could threaten the Earth if they were to impact. Facilities like the Arecibo Observatory are ready to observe those asteroids with radar, playing a crucial role in knowing reduce uncertainty of the asteroid's direction.

Asteroid Day 2019 is a chance to learn more about asteroids, including their role in the formation of our solar system, how we may be able to explore and utilize them in the future, and ways we can protect our planet from them. The Arecibo Observatory’s event offers a unique opportunity to learn from scientists actively investigating these celestial objects. And after the surprise explosion of 2019 MO over the Caribbean last week, Puerto Rico has one more connection with the cosmos to celebrate.

About Arecibo
The Arecibo Planetary Radar Program is funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The Arecibo Observatory is operated by the University of Central Florida (UCF) in partnership with Universidad Ana G. Mendez - Universidad Metropolitana and Yang Enterprises Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Text provided by Tracy Becker - AO Collaborator/SWRI Postdoctoral Researcher

Arecibo Media Contact
Ricardo Correa
Universidad Metropolitana (UMET)
787-878-2612 ext. 615

Group Lead for Arecibo Planetary Radar
Dr. Anne Virkki
Arecibo Observatory

For more information about NASA Planetary Defense program please check out the following links:

Keywords: arecibo, observatory, asteroids, green, virkki, marshall, venditti, bank, YEI, NASA, radio , comet, Solar, System Radar, telescope, radio, telescope, NEA, NEO, defense, planetary