Astronomers have obtained observations of the smallest asteroid ever characterized in detail. At 2 meters (6 feet) in diameter, the tiny space rock is small enough to be straddled by a person in a hypothetical space-themed sequel to the iconic bomb-riding scene in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”
Interestingly, the asteroid, named 2015 TC25, is also one of the brightest near-Earth asteroids ever discovered. Using data from four different telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, reports that 2015 TC25 reflects about 60 percent of the sunlight that falls on it.
Discovered by the UA’s Catalina Sky Survey last October, 2015 TC25 was studied extensively by Earth-based telescopes during a close flyby that saw the micro world sailing past Earth at 128,000 kilometers, a mere third of the distance to the moon.
In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, Reddy argues that new observations from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and Arecibo Planetary Radar show that the surface of 2015 TC25 is similar to a rare type of highly reflective meteorite called an aubrite. Aubrites consist of very bright minerals, mostly silicates, that formed in an oxygen-free, basaltic environment at very high temperatures. Only one out of every 1,000 meteorites that fall on Earth belong to this class.
“This is the first time we have optical, infrared and radar data on such a small asteroid, which is essentially a meteoroid,” Reddy said. “You can think of it as a meteorite floating in space that hasn’t hit the atmosphere and made it to the ground — yet.”
Scientists are interested in meteoroids because they are the precursors to meteorites impacting Earth, Reddy said.”In the case of 2015 TC25, the likelihood of impacting Earth is fairly small.”
The discovery also is the first evidence for an asteroid lacking the typical dust blanket — called regolith — of most larger asteroids. Instead, 2015 TC25 consists essentially of bare rock. The team also discovered that it is one of the fastest-spinning near-Earth asteroids ever observed, completing a rotation every two minutes.
As far as the little asteroid’s origin is concerned, Reddy believes it probably was chipped off by another impacting rock from its parent, 44 Nysa, a main-belt asteroid large enough to cover most of Los Angeles.