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UCLA researchers investigate possible asteroid collision

By Andrea Schneck

Feb. 11, 2010 9:52 p.m.

Ever since she watched a science fiction film about black holes, UCLA researcher Aurelie Guilbert has loved astronomy.

Since then, her passion has expanded from black holes to icy planetary bodies, and she has applied this enthusiasm to her research at UCLA.

Along with fellow post-doctoral student Michal Drahus from Poland, and graduate student Rachel Stevenson from England, Guilbert is part of a UCLA team that is investigating the immediate aftermath of a recent asteroid collision, an event that has never before been observed.

On Jan. 6, the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program produced a low-resolution image of what appeared to be a comet.

However, David Jewitt, a principal investigator and UCLA professor, and his research team suspected otherwise.

The team analyzed images from several high-resolution telescopes, which strengthened the idea that what they were observing was not a comet but the aftermath of an asteroid collision.

The images showed that the object’s orbit was inconsistent with that of a comet. On average, a comet would be further away from the sun, Stevenson said.

A distinguishing factor of comets is the presence of ice. The likelihood of finding ice on the object was slim, however, because it was closer to the sun than comets generally are, Guilbert said.

The new images further showed that the main body of the object and the dust tail were off, Drahus said, as a comet’s tail and nucleus are more aligned.

An important part of Stevenson’s research will be using a large telescope to evaluate the evolution of the dust tail to see how quickly and how far it spreads out. Stevenson said there might be a link between asteroids and comets, which are currently classified as distinctly separate.

The research will use numerical algorithms to see what happened. One potential implication of the findings will give insight into how many asteroid collisions might have occurred in space. These collisions produce the dust that we observe in the solar system.

In addition to direct imaging, the research team also utilizes spectroscopy, where the intensity of light is analyzed versus its wavelength.

Guilbert analyzes data received from ground-based telescopes using this technique, which can then be used to identify the existence and concentration of gas and ice.

Guilbert said she hopes to determine if the object has gas present, which would further the body’s classification as an asteroid. She said she does not anticipate it being there, though.

Without gas present, Guilbert said, her future involvement would be minimal as the research would not be centered around her area of expertise. This would free up time for her to work on other projects until next December when her post doctoral time at UCLA finishes.

Guilbert said she hopes to continue doing research in the future.

For Drahus, this future research will be aided by his involvement in the asteroid collision project.

“This is a good experience. I’m learning about how scientists collaborate, and I can use these skills for future research,” Drahus said.

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