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Radar images of binary asteroid 2004 BL86 as it flew past Earth on January 26

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Asteroid 2004 BL86, which made the closest approach to Earth on January 26, 2015 for the at least the next two centuries, is in fact a binary asteroid, meaning it has its own moon.

Scientists working with NASA's Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California have released the first radar images of this Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA) along with the small object in its orbit, but the signature of the satellite was seen in light curve data reported earlier by Joseph Pollock of the Appalachian State University in North Carolina and Petr Prave of the Ondrejov Observatory in Czech Republic.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The 20 individual images used in the movie were generated from data collected at Goldstone on January 26, 2015.

They show the primary body is approximately 325 meters (1 100 feet) across and has a small moon approximately 70 meters (230 feet) across. In the near-Earth population, about 16 percent of asteroids that are about 200 meters (655 feet) or larger are a binary (the primary asteroid with a smaller asteroid moon orbiting it) or even triple systems (two moons).

Monday's flyby was the closest approach this asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries. It is also the closest a known asteroid this size will come to Earth until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past our planet in 2027.

Radar is a powerful technique for studying an asteroid's size, shape, rotation state, surface features and surface roughness, and for improving the calculation of asteroid orbits. Radar measurements of asteroid distances and velocities often enable computation of asteroid orbits much further into the future than if radar observations weren't available.

In 2016, NASA will launch a robotic probe to one of the most potentially hazardous of the known NEOs (Near-Earth Objects). The OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid (101955) Bennu will be a pathfinder for future spacecraft designed to perform reconnaissance on any newly discovered threatening objects. Aside from monitoring potential threats, the study of asteroids and comets enables a valuable opportunity to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the source of water on Earth, and even the origin of organic molecules that led to the development of life.

NASA also continues to advance the journey to Mars through progress on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which will test a number of new capabilities needed for future human expeditions to deep space, including to Mars. This includes advanced Solar Electric Propulsion – an efficient way to move heavy cargo using solar power, which could help pre-position cargo for future human missions to the Red Planet.

As part of ARM, a robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid and redirect an asteroid mass to a stable orbit around the moon. Astronauts will explore the asteroid mass in the 2020's, helping test modern spaceflight capabilities like new space suits and sample return techniques. Astronauts at Johnson Space Center in Houston have already begun to practice the capabilities needed for the mission.

Featured image credit: NASA/JPL

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