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Asteroid Day 2020: a celebration of our asteroid research

Asteroid Day

To mark Asteroid Day, we have spent some time pulling together the various threads of asteroid research that take place within The School of Physical Sciences to celebrate the broad reach of our work within the field of space science. Asteroid Day was co-founded by astrophysicist and QUEEN guitarist Dr Brian May along with Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Filmmaker Grig Richters, and B612 President Danica Remy. Their aim is to encourage the public and governments to learn more about asteroids, and the role they play in our Solar System today as well as promoting the research that will support the resources necessary to find and deflect asteroids. You can learn more on the Asteroid Day official website as well as in this video, which explains a bit more about the history of the event. June 30th marks the anniversary of the largest asteroid impact on Earth in recorded history, that of Tunguska in 1908. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) have made an Asteroid Day programme, airing at 11am BST on Tuesday June 30th, that is worth watching. The programme features Dr Natalie Starkey, our very own Outreach and Public Engagement Officer within The School of Physical Sciences (space science writer and former asteroid/comet researcher) in discussion with leading asteroid experts with guests including Antarctic meteorite hunter Dr Katie Joy from the University of Manchester, Prof Alan Fitzsimmons – who’s working on ESA’s asteroid intercept mission HERA, and ESA asteroid tracking expert Dr Detlef Koschny. It also includes astronauts such as Luca Parmitano and researchers working on ESA’s new asteroid tracking telescopes, as well as Dr Brian May giving the low-down on the challenges of asteroid rendezvous.


Asteroid Basics

To start with, you might be wondering how asteroids get their names? This OpenLearn article by Professor of Volcanology and Planetary Science, Dave Rothery, can answer many of your questions. Some people are even lucky enough to get asteroids named after them and one of those people is our very own Professor of Planetary Sciences, Monica Grady, with Asteroid 4731 “Monicagrady”. You can read more about her here.

Asteroids are some of the small rocky objects in the Solar System. The largest is Ceres, also designated as a dwarf planet because of its size, yet it is still much smaller than Pluto, which is arguably the most famous dwarf planet. Although Asteroid Day focusses on asteroids, we should not overlook comets, which are also small objects orbiting the Sun with the potential to hit Earth. Comets tend to contain a lot of ice in their structure as well as dust, which makes them generally different in composition to asteroids. But the lines of distinction between what makes an asteroid and what makes a comet can become a little blurred. If you want to understand more about it then this handy NASA poster pdf download might be useful. There’s also more detail in this podcast (primarily aimed at an adult audience) when our Outreach and Public Engagement Officer Dr Natalie Starkey chatted with Neil deGrasse Tyson on StarTalk Radio about Comets and Asteroids.

We also have some brilliant videos made by our researchers that you might want to watch about asteroids and meteorites. These are mostly suitable for high school students and above. Ever wonder what happens when pieces of asteroids collide with Earth? Here Dr Ashley King talks about ‘Meteors: Caught on Camera’. Want to learn more about meteorites? These are the rocks that land on Earth from space and many come from asteroids, allowing us to learn about the composition and evolution of the Solar System. This video by Dr Ashley King has you covered and is suitable for a range of age groups.


Near-Earth asteroids

Another key aspect of Asteroid Day is in investigating what danger asteroids pose to life on Earth. In this video, Prof of Planetary and Space Science, Simon Green spoke about near-Earth asteroids, which are the space objects that are close to our planet and may pose a threat to us in the future. The lecture begins with Professor Andrew Norton speaking about ‘A Clockwork Universe’ and Prof Green’s talk follows after.

It is thought that the poor dinosaurs owe their demise to a large space rock colliding with our planet, but in this article, Monica Grady discusses what even small asteroids could do.

If you want to spot a near-Earth asteroid passing by Earth then you could use a telescope, like the one The Open University has on the island of Tenerife, PIRATE, which can be used as part of the Open Science Labs. This video taken by School of Physical Sciences research student Sam Jackson shows asteroid #1998OR2 on 29 April 2020.  Sam also wrote a brilliant article for OpenLearn explaining more about how he uses the PIRATE telescope to learn more about the surface of asteroids. You can read more here.


Visiting asteroids in space

We have many SPS members working on different aspects of asteroid science. One of them is Dr Ben Rozitis who is a collaborator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. He developed the thermal model of asteroid Bennu that the team have used in the mission. You can see a beautiful animation of it here. Bennu is deemed one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids for Earth, and is thought to be on a course to collide with our planet in the 22nd century. Learning more about this object will allow scientists to help work out how to move Bennu onto a different course if needed in the future. You can read more about Ben’s work on the thermal model for asteroid Bennu that has been visited by the OSIRIS-REx mission here. With a link to some of Ben’s published research here, investigating the ‘active’ asteroid nature of Bennu. The OSIRIS-REx mission is set to return to Earth in 2023 with a sample of asteroid Bennu, which it will collect at the end of 2020, that can be analysed in laboratories around the world.

Another of our lecturers, Dr Ashley King, has published some research preparing for the return of pieces of asteroids back to Earth. These rocks might be from the OSIRIS-REx mission or from the JAXA Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu. You can read about some of his work here and here.

PhD student Ross Findlay’s research is focussed on analysing pieces of meteorites that are thought to be similar to the rocks that will be returned by these space missions. He wrote an article for OpenLearn for us explaining more about the meteorites he studies, and why they’re important.

But OSIRIS-REx is not the only mission to visit an asteroid in space. There have been many to asteroids and comets over the years. The NASA Stardust mission was the first to return a sample from one of these small objects. Dr Natalie Starkey wrote about it for The Conversation.

Natalie spent years working in our labs analysing pieces of comets and asteroids returned to Earth by space missions such as NASA Stardust and JAXA Hayabusa, as well as tiny specks of comet dust collected by NASA. It led to her writing a book, Catching Stardust, so if you’re looking for a longer read about these enigmatic space objects, then it’s here. With a review in

It turns out that not all asteroids reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Some wayward objects have been captured by the gravity of planets in the past, causing them to collide with the planet, but in other cases to become a moon. One of these might be Mars’ moon Phobos. JAXA is set to launch a sample return mission to Phobos in 2024 with the aim of answering the conundrum of Phobos' origin - captured asteroid or giant impact-derived like our Moon. PhD student Zoe Morland wrote about the origin of Mars’s moons here. Here’s a link to her article: Phobos – an asteroid masquerading as a moon of Mars?

Before the planets settled down into the neat orbits we find them in today, sometimes they moved in towards the Sun and out again, which caused havoc for the smaller objects surrounding them, such as the asteroids. As a planet such as Jupiter moved around, its gravity flung asteroids out of their orbits resulting in them were whizzing about all over the place. The new orbits they found themselves on sometimes brought them close to the planets and moons, which they often collided with, as well as each other. But it is this part of their history that means they might have delivered water to Earth and other planets, or even the Moon billions of years ago. One of our researchers, Dr Jessica Barnes who is now an Assistant Prof at University of Arizona, along with other SPS colleagues, looked at this topic with her work reported here by the BBC.


The future

Looking to the future, Professor of Planetary and Space Science, Simon Green is working on space missions that will visit asteroids in the coming years. The purpose of these missions is in planetary defence – how we protect our planet from being impacted by a space rock in the future. One of these planetary defence missions is NASA’s DART and the other is ESA’s HERA, both looking at how to deflect asteroids on a collision course with Earth. ESA have a useful video here, narrated by Dr Brian May, that explains more about these missions, and there is an interesting paper here about the ‘Science case for the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM): A component of the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission’ that Simon was involved in. With more info on DART and HERA. For more information about the how the European Planetary Defence activities fit within an international framework of understanding and studying near-Earth objects, then this summary diagram is very useful.

But it’s not all about turning asteroids away from us. Simon is also involved in the science of space mining! This may sound like science fiction, but it is fast becoming a reality, with huge investments globally. Here are some links to a conference in 2016 on ‘Asteroid Science Intersections with In-Space Mine Engineering (ASIME)’ in Luxembourg City and the final discussion can be found here. As well as a report that came out from this conference on: IN-SPACE UTILISATION OF ASTEROIDS: “Answers to Questions from the Asteroid Miners”


We’ve only covered an overview of some of the asteroid science that takes place in the School of Physical Sciences, but it is obvious from this that our involvement is broad, reaching across all areas from detecting asteroids all the way to analysing pieces of them returned to Earth. The future of asteroid science is an exciting field and we are thrilled to be a part of it. If you want to learn more then follow us on Twitter: @OU_SPS and join in the conversation for #AsteroidDay.


***For those not on Twitter, we have collated the three tweet threads in these following links: one, two and three, which were all published on 30th June between 9am and 4pm.***