An Asteroid's Sky Trek
4 0 c m
actual image size: 30cm x 32cm

An Asteroid's Sky Trek

© Science & Society


While analyzing NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of the Sagittarius dwarf irregular galaxy (SagDIG), an international team of astronomers were surprised to see the trail of a faint asteroid that had drifted across the field of view during the exposures. The trail is seen as a series of 13 reddish arcs on the right in this August 2003 Advanced Camera for Surveys image. As the Hubble telescope orbits around the Earth, and the Earth moves around the Sun, a nearby asteroid in our solar system will appear to move with respect to the vastly more distant background stars, due to an effect called parallax. It is somewhat similar to the effect you see from a moving car, in which trees by the side of the road appear to be moving much more rapidly than background objects at much larger distances. This is a previously unknown asteroid, located 169 million miles from Earth at the time of observation. The distance places the new object, most likely, in the main asteroid belt, lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Based on the observed brightness of the asteroid, the astronomers estimate that it has a diameter of about 1.5 miles. The brightest stars in the picture (easily distinguished by the spikes radiating from their images, produced by optical effects within the telescope), are foreground stars lying within our own Milky Way galaxy. Their distances from Earth are typically a few thousand light-years. The faint, bluish SagDIG stars lie at about 3.5 million light-years (1.1 Megaparsecs) from us. Lastly, background galaxies (reddish/brown extended objects with spiral arms and halos) are located even further beyond SagDIG at several tens of millions parsecs away. There is thus a vast range of distances among the objects visible in this photo, ranging from about 169 million miles for the asteroid, up to many quadrillions of miles for the faint, small galaxies.

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