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Restored radar captures new images of asteroid 3200 Phaethon

Restored radar captures new images of asteroid 3200 Phaethon

New imagery suggests the near-Earth asteroid 3200 Phaethon is bigger than previously thought - and considering it's ranked as the second largest of the asteroids potentially hazardous to our planet, that's worth noting.

The relatively close encounter, about 27 times the distance of the Earth to the moon, enabled scientists at the recently renovated Arecibo Observatory Planetary Radar to get a closer look at the egg-shaped asteroid. Researchers originally believed that the object had a diameter of about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers), but the new snapshots show it has a diameter of roughly 3.6 miles (6 kilometers).

'This year, we discovered 1,985 new near Earth asteroids.

Nasa describes near-earth objects as "comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood".

Tracking and characterizing PHAs is a primary mission of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

Owing to the relatively small size of such asteroids, "astronomers can not hope to find more than a small fraction of them", according to Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer at Queen's University Belfast.

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"Arecibo is an important global asset, crucial for planetary defense work because of its unique capabilities", said deputy director of Arecibo Observatory and USRA's Joan Schmelz.

The Arecibo Observatory has the most powerful astronomical radar system on Earth.

The Arecibo Observatory is only just coming back online after the devastating impact Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico and its people, the strongest hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century.

Though Arecibo's structure was only minimally damaged when the hurricane hit, a long-term lack of power and diesel fuel for its generators has drastically hampered its radar operations. Some days after the storm, the observatory resumed radio astronomy observations, while also serving as a base for relief efforts to surrounding communities.

The approximately 3.6-mile-wide space rock, called 3200 Phaethon, whizzed past our planet at a distance of 6.4 million miles - close enough for NASA to snap high-resolution images of its core. Phaethon will not come that close to Earth again until December 14, 2093.

In a statement about the asteroid, which was first discovered in 1983, a spokesperson for Nasa said: "With a diameter of about 5km, Phaethon is the third largest near-Earth asteroid classified as 'Potentially Hazardous"'.