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In Pictures: The sizzling world of asteroids

From new space mining venture to causing the end of the world, asteroids are a hot topic

  • Asteroids have been big news this year. The week of April 23 Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt joined with filmmaker James Cameron and others to bankroll an asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources. And then a huge piece of space debris exploded in the skies over California. Asteroids too have been the center of the oft-controversial doomsday for Earth in 2012 scenario. Here we take a look at the recent history of asteroids and what scientists are learning about them.

  • Chris Lewicki (R), president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, and Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources. Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron are among those bankrolling a venture to survey and eventually extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth, the company said. Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Wash., initially will focus on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions. Credit: Cliff DesPeaux / Reuters

  • Why mine asteroids? Planetary Resources said: There are over 1,500 asteroids that are as easy to get to as the surface of the Moon. Asteroid resources have some unique characteristics that make them especially attractive. Unlike Earth, where heavier metals are close to the core, metals in asteroids are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract. Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

  • Charles Simonyi, an investor in Planetary Resources, speaks during a news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, April 24, 2012.

  • The Planetary Resources Arkyd Series 100 space telescope will be the company’s front line spacecraft supporting the critical structures, avionics, attitude determination and control, and instrumentation that enable low-cost asteroid exploration.

  • The avionics module is pictured in the mockup of the Arkyd 100-series telescope at the Planetary Resources introduction.

  • Planetary Resources Rendezvous Prospector will conduct missions to more distant asteroids. Orbiting the asteroid, the Rendezvous Prospector will collect data on the asteroid’s shape, rotation, density, and surface and sub-surface composition. Rendezvous Prospector also results in the creation and demonstration of a low-cost interplanetary spacecraft capability, of interest to potential customers such as NASA, scientific agencies, or other private exploratory organizations, the company says.

  • Also in the news this week, a bright ball of light traveling east to west was seen over the skies of central/northern California Sunday morning, April 22. The former space rock-turned-flaming-meteor entered Earth's atmosphere around 8 a.m. PDT. Reports of the fireball have come in from as far north as Sacramento, Calif. and as far east as North Las Vegas. Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., estimates the object was about the size of a minivan, weighed in at around 154,300 pounds (70 metric tons) and at the time of disintegration released energy equivalent to a 5-kiloton explosion.

  • Doomsday 2012 scenarios have abounded in the news for a long time it seems and this year NASA shot the theories down – including one of a world ending asteroid. “The Earth has always been subject to impacts by comets and asteroids, although big hits are very rare. The last big impact was 65 million years ago, and that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. We have already determined that there are no threatening asteroids as large as the one that killed the dinosaurs. For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? Where is the evidence? There is none, and for all the fictional assertions, whether they are made in books, movies, documentaries or over the Internet

  • Asteroid 2011 AG5 got a lot of attention early in 2012 because of a very unlikely scenario which would place it on an Earth-interception course 28 years from now. "In September 2013, we have the opportunity to make additional observations of 2011 AG5 when it comes within 91 million miles (147 million kilometers) of Earth," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It will be an opportunity to observe this space rock and further refine its orbit. Because of the extreme rarity of an impact by a near-Earth asteroid of this size, I fully expect we will be able to significantly reduce or rule out entirely any impact probability for the foreseeable future."

  • Astronomers say they had found an asteroid, dubbed 1998 DK36, in a place where they have never been found before, orbiting entirely between the Earth and the sun, and warned there may be more out there.

  • Here NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took a look at Earth's closest neighbor in space, the Moon. Hubble was aimed at one of the Moon's most dramatic and photogenic targets, the 58 mile-wide (93 km) impact crater Copernicus. (Upper left) The Moon is so close to Earth that Hubble would need to take a mosaic of 130 pictures to cover the entire disk. This ground-based picture from the Lick Observatory on Earth shows the area covered in Hubble's photomosaic with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. (Center) Hubble's crisp bird's-eye view clearly shows the ray pattern of bright dust ejected out of the crater over 1 billion years ago, when an asteroid larger than a mile across slammed into the Moon.

  • NASA's Deep Space 1 experimental spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, successfully flew close above the surface of asteroid 9969 Braille at about 35,000 mph.

  • Radar images of 1999 JM8, an unusually large asteroid with a slow rotation rate, reveal the object's bizarre shape as it streaked past Earth in late July and early August 1999 at a close approach of 8.5 million kilometers (5.3 million miles), about 22 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon in 1999.

  • NASA spaceship found the mysterious heart of Eros just in time for Valentine's Day 2000. Shortly before the orbit began, NEAR detected a curious feature on the 21-mile (33.6 km)-long asteroid's surface: a narrow heart that looks like a beauty mark at the lower end of the space rock.

  • The surface of the asteroid 433 Eros comes into view at 250 meters (820 feet) as the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft descends to the surface Feb. 12, 2001.

  • An asteroid strike is believed to have set about events that caused the extinction of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Though scientists believe they have mapped all of the 6-mile-wide objects that could cross Earth's path and annihilate life here, dozens of research centers are searching the sky for moderate-sized asteroids or comets in the half-mile-wide range that might one day collide with the Earth and kick up enough dust to cause a 'nuclear winter' that would wipe out crops and might cause tsunamis to swamp coastal areas.

  • The Gusev Crater area on the planet Mars, is pictured in this undated photograph from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists believe an asteroid or comet impact as much as 4 billion years ago dug Gusev's 150 kilometer diameter (95 mile) floor.

  • The 548-metre long asteroid, "25143 Itokawa", is seen nearly 300 million km (186 million miles) from earth in this picture taken Nov. 20, 2005 by the Japanese unmanned Hayabusa and released by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The probe's shadow (tiny black spot seen on center) is made out on Itokawa's surface.

  • NASA's Dawn spacecraft is shown in the clean room at Astrotech in 2007. Dawn launched aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to investigate two large asteroids, Ceres and Vesta.

  • The asteroid Vesta is seen in this image obtained with NASA's Dawn Spacecraft framing camera from a distance of 3200 miles in 2011. Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt.

  • An artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. The spacecraft is circled Vesta at an altitude averaging about 130 miles (210 km) in the phase of the mission known as low altitude mapping orbit.

  • An image of Mercury is seen as taken by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft at a distance of approximately 17,000 miles (27,359 km) after the spacecraft's closest approach to the planet in 2008. The image shows features as small as 6 miles (10km) in size. Similar to previously mapped portions of Mercury, this hemisphere appears heavily cratered. It also reveals some unique and distinctive features. On the upper right is the giant Caloris basin, including its western portions never before seen by spacecraft. Formed by the impact of a large asteroid or comet, Caloris is one of the largest, and perhaps one of the youngest basins in the solar system.

  • This Hubble Space Telescope picture shows a bizarre X-pattern of filamentary structures near the point-like nucleus of the object and trailing streamers of dust. Astronomers have found a comet-like object they believe was created by the collision of two asteroids, possible siblings of the rogue rock blamed for killing the dinosaurs millions of years ago. The object, known as P/2010 A2, was circling about 90 million miles (144 million km) from Earth in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

  • Particle debris in Jupiter's atmosphere is seen after an object hurtled into the atmosphere. The image on the left was taken July 20, 2009 and the image on the right was taken August 2009. A hurtling asteroid about the size of the Titanic caused the scar that appeared in Jupiter's atmosphere on July 19, 2009.

  • A picture shot by ESA's Rosetta mission's OSIRIS instrument shows asteroid Lutetia at a distance of 3,162 km (1,964 miles) its closest approach. The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 130km.

  • This infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) showcases the Tadpole Nebula, a star-forming hub in the Auriga constellation about 12,000 light-years from Earth. As WISE scanned the sky, capturing this mosaic of stitched-together frames, it caught an asteroid in our solar system passing by. The asteroid, called 1719 Jens, left tracks across the image. A second asteroid was also observed cruising by.

  • NASA image shows an artist's concept of a broken-up asteroid. Scientists think that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Data from NASA's WISE mission likely rules out the leading suspect, a member of a family of asteroids called Baptistina, so the search for the origins of the dinosaur-killing asteroid goes on.

  • A big dog bone-shaped asteroid named Kleopatra is the featured attraction in images released by NASA. As asteroids go, Kleopatra is a monster, measuring 135 miles (217 kilometers) long and about 58 miles (94 kilometers) wide.

  • In the not so scientific world: Onlookers watch in horror as a comet prepares to crash into the earth in a scene from the film "Deep Impact."

  • In the not so scientific world part 2: Actor Bruce Willis stars as "Harry S. Stamper" whose expertise as the world's top deep core driller is tapped to be part of a team of astronauts who tried to blow up an asteroid headed towards Earth in the 1998 film "Armageddon."

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