Scientists on NASA’s asteroid sample return mission, Origins, Spectral Interpretation,
Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), have measured the orbit of their destination asteroid, 1999 RQ36, with such accuracy they were able to directly measure the drift resulting from a subtle but important force called the Yarkovsky effect the slight push created when the asteroid absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. Observations that Michael Nolan at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico made in September 2011, along with Arecibo and Goldstone radar observations made in 1999 and 2005, when 1999 RQ36 passed much closer to Earth, show that the asteroid has deviated from its gravity-ruled orbit by roughly 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, in the last 12 years, a deviation caused by the Yarkovsky effect. The Yarkovsky effect is named for the nineteenth-century Russian engineer who first proposed the idea that a small rocky space object would, over long periods of time, be noticeably nudged in its orbit by the slight push created when it absorbs sunlight and then re-emits that energy as heat. Nolan and his team measured the distance between the Arecibo Observatory and 1999 RQ36 to an accuracy of 300 meters, or about a fifth of a mile, when the asteroid was 30 million kilometers, or 20 million miles, from Earth. OSIRIS-REx team member Steven Chesley of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. and his colleagues used the new Arecibo measurements to calculate a series of 1999 RQ36 approaches closer to Earth than 7.5 million kilometers (4.6 million miles) from the years 1654 to 2135. There turned out to be 11 such encounters. By combining the radar results from Arecibo Observatory with infrared results from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the scientists also learned that asteroid 1999 RQ36 is very light, it has around the same density as water.