Given the increasing number of Near-Earth Objects (NEO) being discovered, it is not difficult to understand why many people fear a potential collision with our home planet. However, scientists have recently gathered new data regarding the composition of asteroids, data that can be used to help minimize the risk of an asteroid hitting the Earth.
The concept of an asteroid hitting our planet is understandably terrifying. This is also one of the reasons why there have been numerous Hollywood movies depicting the extent of damage such a catastrophic event can cause. Moreover, it has happened before in the past and scientists believe that it can happen again in the future.
Due to the nature of asteroids and current limitations in space technology, studying these celestial bodies can be very difficult. Using a European Southern Observatory telescope, however, scientists were able to take accurate measurements of the asteroid Itokawa. Data about the asteroid's density led scientists to conclude that different parts of the asteroid had varying densities indicating a non-uniform composition.
The Itokawa is a stony composite 1,755 foot long asteroid that has a distinctive and easily recognizable peanut-like shape. The asteroid also orbits the sun, taking about 556 days to complete one revolution. Researchers from the University of Kent used the New Technology Telescope in La Silla Observatory, Chile, to measure variations in brightness as the asteroid rotated.
"This is the first time we have ever been able to determine what it is like inside an asteroid," said Dr. Stephen Lowry from the University of Kent. "We can see that this asteroid has a highly varied structure - this finding is a significant step forward in our understanding of rocky bodies in our Solar System."
Data regarding the interior of the Itokawa can be used by researchers to figure out how these giant masses formed in the first place. Given Itokawa's non-uniform density, scientists believe that it may have been formed when two asteroids collided with each other to form a single body.
Gathering data from an asteroid without using a spacecraft is seen as a very important step to understanding the nature of these celestial bodies. As more information is gathered about these asteroids, scientists can formulate more effective plans in case NEO decide to stray to close to the Earth.
Aside from the team in La Silla Observatory, Japanese scientists have also contributed to the effort. Back in 2005, the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft successfully gathered grains of dust from the Itokawa during its seven year mission.