The “Space Peanut” Asteroid and the Two Telescopes Behind The Images
space peanut asteroid 1999 JD6

On July 25, our planet had a close (relatively) encounter with a weird looking asteroid. The asteroid, 1999 JD6, is believed to be a contact binary – a type of asteroid with two lobes sticking together.

NASA opted for a much cooler name in their press release – a “space peanut.”

The asteroid (pictured above) looks odd, but they’re not as rare as you might think. According to Lance Benner, leader of NASA’s asteroid radar research program, nearly 15 percent of near-Earth asteroids larger than 600 feet are shaped similar to 1999 JD6.

Besides being shaped like a peanut, NASA also knows the asteroid rotates in just over seven-and-a-half hours and is believed to be a darker object. The asteroid’s name comes from the year it was discovered. 1999 JD6 was spotted by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth-Object Search on May 12, 1999.

1999 JD6 came within 4.5 million miles of Earth on July 25 at 12:55 a.m. EDT. That’s about 19 times the distance from Earth to the moon. No danger to us.

We won’t be seeing the “space peanut” this close again until 2054.

The Two Telescopes That Captured the “Space Peanut”

Researchers used two massive radio telescopes to capture the images and video above – the 230-foot wide Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna at Goldstone, California, and the 330-foot National Science Foundation Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

A technique called bistatic observation was used. The Goldstone antenna shoots a radar signal at the asteroid while the Green Bank telescope catches the signal’s reflection. This technique gives scientists incredible detail of the object. Details from features as small as 25 feet wide are common with the technique.

When it’s not shooting radar signals at passing asteroids, the Deep Space Network is busy receiving communications from spacecraft in the far reaches of our solar system. According to NASA, DSN antennas capture signals from the two Voyager spacecraft several times per week. The Deep Space Network is also vital in capturing the data from NASA’s New Horizons mission.

goldstone DSN antenna

The facility in Goldstone, California is one of three located across the world. The other two are in Madrid, Spain and Canberra, Australia. Each is separated by 120 degrees in longitude. This allows for continuous communication with spacecraft as our planet rotates.

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia sits in one of the most unique places in the United States – the National Radio Quiet Zone. The world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope sits in an area that looks like it’s stuck in the 1950s.

Green Bank Telescope

The National Radio Quiet Zone is an area of land 13,000 square miles in size. The most strict restrictions are in an area within a 20-mile radius of the Green Bank Telescope. Like your microwave dinners? Steer clear. What about WiFi? Netflix is a no go in this area.

If you want to untether yourself from your smartphone, put Green Bank, West Virginia on your bucket list.

Seeker Stories released a fascinating video about Green Bank, West Virginia and the Green Bank Telescope last week. Check it out below.

Image credits: NRAO, NASA

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