HQ124 is the formal name of what astronomers are calling the 'Beast', an awe-inspiring asteroid more beautiful than beastly that zipped past Earth on Sunday, June 8.
With a shape somewhere in-between a potato and a bowling pin, the asteroid is at least 1,200 feet long and was spinning slowly as it passed Earth at a safe distance of 776,000 miles. Were it to hit our planet, the Beast could easily destroy multiple cities, deeming its name rather appropriate. As a result the asteroid is designated one of 1,483 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) followed by astronomers.
Using the William E. Gordon telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the DSS-14 antenna at Goldstone, California, astronomers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) could clearly make out the surface structure of the Beast. The ends contain rocky outcrops, and a pointy hill is seen around the middle. To see such fine detail (the images can show features as small as 12 feet) from a distance of about three times the distance between Earth and the moon, the Arecibo telescope and the Goldstone antenna have to work in partnership.
The devices working in conjunction can track an asteroid's radar echo, giving astronomers the ability to predict the long-term motions of trajectories.
Lance Benner, a scientist working at the JPL, says that the Beast is likely the product of two smaller asteroids coming together to form a 'contact binary', or simply a double object with a lobed shape.
The DSS-12 antenna at Goldstone is 230 feet long and beams a radar signal at an asteroid. Another antenna, a smaller dish also in California, receives reflections from the radar signal. The Goldstone antenna is responsible for viewing remarkably small features on distant objects, and the Arecibo telescope produces high resolution. The Arecibo-Goldstone partnership would be impossible if it weren't for recent upgrades in Arecibo's equipment.
Astronomers consider themselves lucky to have even found the Beast, let alone receive such beautiful radar images. NEOWISE, a NASA mission using a space telescope to locate infrared light from asteroids and comets, only spotted the HQ124 asteroid on April 23.
Radar tools are used to observe sizes, shapes, rotations, surfaces, and orbital periods of objects in space. "Spaceguard", or NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, uses these tools to determine the potential threat of orbiting space objects.
The methods used to observe asteroids are also useful for those considering the potential uses of orbiting objects. "Say you wanted to send a mission to push on an asteroid. It would help a lot to know if it was a pile of gravel or solid rock. And if you're going to mine an asteroid, you'd want to know if you should bring a shovel or some dynamite," says Mike Nolan, a staff scientist at the Arecibo Observatory.