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Asteroid 1950 DA

Asteroid 1950 DA


Arecibo radar image of 1950 DA on 4 March 2001, from a distance of 0.052 AU . Image from S. Ostro (JPL).

History of Observation

Asteroid (29075) 1950 DA was discovered on 23 February 1950. It was observed for 17 days and then faded from view for half a century. Then, an object discovered on 31 December 2000 was recognized as being the long-lost 1950 DA. (Note this was New Century's Eve and exactly 200 years to the night after the discovery of the first asteroid, Ceres.)

Radar observations were made at Goldstone and Arecibo on 3-7 March 2001, during the asteroid's 7.8 million km approach to the Earth (a distance 21 times larger than that separating the Earth and Moon). Radar echoes revealed a slightly asymmetrical spheroid with a mean diameter of 1.1 km. Optical observations showed the asteroid rotated once every 2.1 hours, the second fastest spin rate ever observed for an asteroid its size.

Detection of A Potential Hazard

When high-precision radar meaurements were included in a new orbit solution, a potentially very close approach to the Earth on March 16, 2880 was discovered to exist. Analysis performed by Giorgini et al. and reported in the April 5, 2002 edition of the journal Science ("Asteroid 1950 DA's Encounter With Earth in 2880: Physical Limits of Collision Probability Prediction") determined the impact probability as being at most 1 in 300 and probably even more remote, based on what is known about the asteroid so far. At its greatest, this could represent a risk 50% greater than that of the average background hazard due to all other asteroids from the present era through 2880, as defined by the Palermo Technical Scale (PTS value = +0.17). 1950 DA is the only known asteroid whose hazard could be above the background level.

Understanding the Risk

However, these are maximum values. The study indicates the collision probability for 1950 DA is best described as being in the range 0 to 0.33%. The upper limit could increase or decrease as we learn more about the asteroid in the years ahead.

Expressing the risk as an interval is necessary because not enough is known about the physical properties of the asteroid. For example, radar data suggests two possible directions for the asteroid's spin pole. If one pole is correct, solar radiation acceleration could significantly cancel thermal emission acceleration. Collision probability would then be close to the maximum 0.33%. If the spin pole is instead near the other possible solution, there would be little chance of collision. There are other factors also.

The situation is similar to knowing you have a coin that is biased so one side will land up 80% of the time -- but you don't know which side. You can only say that when you flip the coin, the chance of heads is 80% or 20%.

Results of the Study

Whether or not the impact hazard of 1950 DA is excluded at some later date, results of the case have significance beyond the impact issue:

A) Physical knowledge of asteroids is required for long-term predictions, especially for objects gravitationally encountering planets. Regardless of how accurate the position and velocity measurements of an asteroid, it's properties and environment affect the trajectory.

Arecibo Radar Movie

Movie from S. Ostro (JPL).

B) Asteroid deflection can be made easy and low-tech by modifying the surface properties of asteroids, given enough warning time. The required warning time for the method may vary from years to centuries, depending on the gravitational encounters along the way, which can amplify the effect.

C) Repetitive patterns of gravitational interactions (called "resonances") can help preserve our ability to predict orbits into the future by constraining the growth of orbit statistical uncertainties.

D) Radar measurements allow us to predict trajectories 5-10 times further into the future than with optical telescopes only,

The paper explored the physical factors limiting such long-term predictions. It was found the most significant factor affecting its future long-term motion was the way heat radiates off the asteroid into space. Others factors discussed in the paper include: solar radiation pressure, uncertainties in the masses of the planets, gravitational tugging by thousands of other asteroids, the shape of the Sun, galactic tides due to other stars, solar particle wind and computer hardware imprecision.

Asteroid 1950 DA

Animations from J. Giorgini (JPL).
The case of 1950 DA differs from previous hazard predictions. For past cases, a risk was detected based on a few days or weeks of data for a newly discovered object.

The uncertainty region that surrounds an object then is large, sometimes spanning a significant part of the inner solar system. Additional measurements made a few days or weeks later shrink the region such that the Earth falls out of it and the risk goes to zero.

Although other currently unknown asteroids may pose a risk before 2880, the situation with 1950 DA is unique. It is based on observations spanning 51 years, has high-precision radar data, and has a favorable orbit geometery. All these factors together allow us to predict far into the future and explore the physical limits of such collision probability predictions.

Predictions so far in the future require knowledge of the physical nature of the asteroid. How it spins in space, what it is made of, its mass, and the variations in the way it reflects light affect the way it moves though space over time. Such detailed knowledge of 1950 DA does not exist at present and may not be available for years, decades or longer.

Asteroid 1950 DA
Orbit Diagrams

Graphics from J. Giorgini (JPL).
However, because of the long-time span involved (878 years -- 35 generations!), there is plenty of time to improve our knowledge. If it is eventually decided 1950 DA needs to be diverted, the hundreds of years of warning could allow a method as simple as dusting the surface of the asteroid with chalk or charcoal, or perhaps white glass beads, or sending a solar sail spacecraft that ends by collapsing its reflective sail around the asteroid. These things would change the asteroids reflectivity and allow sunlight to do the work of pushing the asteroid out of the way.

There is no reason for concern over 1950 DA. The most likely result will be that St. Patrick's Day parades in 2880 will be a little more festive than usual as 1950 DA recedes into the distance, having passed Earth by.

Research Team

Asteroid 1950 DA

Narrated by Jon Giorgini (JPL).
The team reporting in Science about 1950 DA was led by Jon Giorgini and includes, Dr. Steven Ostro, Dr. Lance Benner, Dr. Paul Chodas, Dr. Steven Chesley, Dr. Myles Standish, Dr. Ray Jurgens, Randy Rose, Dr. Alan Chamberlin, all of JPL; Dr. Scott Hudson of Washington State University, Pullman; Dr. Michael Nolan of Arecibo Observatory; Dr. Arnold Klemola of Lick Observatory; and Dr. Jean-Luc Margot of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Arecibo Observatory is operated by the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., under an agreement with the National Science Foundation. The radar observations were supported by NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.


An extended analysis of Apophis was accepted for publication in Icarus. It provides more detail than was possible in the 1950 DA Science paper. Dynamical issues for Apophis are nearly identical to those of 1950 DA, but compressed over a shorter time-scale (30 years instead of 878). However, the potentially hazardous 1950 DA encounter occurs near the center of the Standard Dynamical Model's probability distribution, while Apophis' occurs toward the edge of the SDM.

Results of a new study (Busch et al.) combining the 2001 Goldstone and Arecibo radar data with optical lightcurves are presented in the journal Icarus. Shape, spin state and surface structure of 1950 DA are estimated. New observations intended to resolve the prograde/retrograde spin issue were inconclusive, therefore two distinct shape models are presented. One rotates in a prograde sense and is roughly spheroidal with a mean diameter of 1.16 +/- 0.12 km. The other rotates in a retrograde sense, is oblate, and about 30% larger. Both models suggest a nickel-iron or enstatite chondritic composition.

On the cultural frontier, a Scottish heavy-metal band has adopted the asteroid's designation, "1950 DA", as their name. "Stomping, groove-laden metal" is their chosen path. A more main-stream group, "Monster Movie", released a CD ("To The Moon") in 2004, including a pop song about asteroid impacts titled "1950 DA".

The relative effect of error source and certain known and unknown dynamics on the nominal along-track position intersecting the Earth are shown below, normalized in units of numerical integration noise. This expands on Table 3 of the published paper.

  Parameter                                       Relative Along-track Effect
  ----------------------------------------------- -----------------------------------
  Solar particle wind                                    0.001
  Galilean satellites                                   -0.333
  Galactic tide                                         -0.833
  Numerical integration error (128-bit vs. 64-bit)      -1.000      (9900 km, 12 min)
  Solar mass loss                                       +1.333
  Poynting-Robertson drag                               -2.333
  Solar oblateness                                [   +4.08, +1.75]
  Sun-barycenter relativistic shift                    +81.0        (inc. in nominal)
  61 most perturbing "other" asteroids                -144
  Planetary mass uncertainty                      [ +132,  -156]
  Solar radiation pressure                           -1092
  Yarkovsky effect                                [+1152, -6924]
Numbers in brackets indicate a range of possible values due to poorly known physical parameters. These factors together reduce prediction window extent from 2880 to 2860 (-20 years, or -2.3%)

Results of a study simulating the impact of a 1950 DA-like object in the northern Atlantic ocean were published (Ward & Asphaug, UCSD, June issue of the Geophysical Journal International). The same impact velocity and general impact region were used, but a less massive (thus rigid) object with less energy dissipation was assumed. The actual mass of 1950 DA is unknown. It was found waves propagate throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. Two hours after impact, 400-foot waves reach beaches from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras. Four hours after impact, the entire East Coast experiences waves at least 200 feet high. It takes 8 hours for the waves to reach Europe, where they come ashore at heights of about 30 to 50 feet.

In his Space Summit Address to the 90th Indian Science Congress, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India, called for an effort to deflect or destroy 1950 DA. Download PDF of presentation

New positional measurements were reported by the Desert Moon Observatory (448) in Las Cruces, New Mexico (MPEC 2003-A22). These were the first new measurements of 29075 (1950 DA) reported since 2001-Oct-17. No statistically significant deviation from the predicted trajectory was observed.

Formal paper published in the journal Science: ("Asteroid 1950 DA's Encounter With Earth in 2880: Physical Limits of Collision Probability Prediction")

Initial 1950 DA results were first reported at the "Asteroids 2001: from Piazzi to the 3rd Millennium" conference in Palermo, Sicily June 11-16: J.D. Giorgini et al., "Asteroid 1950 DA: Long Term Prediction of its Earth Close Approaches" Asteroids 2001, Palermo, Italy, June 2001.

(Modification of asteroid surface properties to harness the Yarkovsky effect for asteroid deflection is described in an informal news article summarizing the 1950 DA presentation at the conference.)

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