Friday 9 September 2011

2011 August notes: An amateur discovered tumbling NEO

August continued the poor run of weather from July and most of the time it was a case of making the best of what clear sky there was.

One opportunity came early in the morning on August 9th when a new discovery was posted on the NEO Confirmation Page, eventually designated as 2011 PE2, this one picked up by the amateur run La Sagra Sky Survey in Spain. The discovery images were from 24 hours earlier which was quite unusual, often La Sagra post their discoveries in near real-time. Jaime Nomen from the survey mentioned later that their reduction software had crashed during the previous evening and those images that had not been processed at the time were put into the queue for the next night, so it was only detected a day later.

Because of the delay the positional uncertainty was growing, with the Minor Planet Center's uncertainty map indicating the likely area it might be found in was 1.75 degrees long. I eventually picked it up 20' from the nominal prediction and then followed it for 20 minutes to get enough images to measure astrometry to send to the MPC. The ephemeris indicated it should be about mag +18.3 but during that 20 minutes it could be seen to vary in brightness from barely visible to very obvious within about 10 minutes. Because of this, I decided to continue to follow it until dawn to try and obtain a lightcurve, ending up with nearly three hours of measurements and showing the total variation to be very large at about 2 magnitudes (a factor of 6). 2011 PE2 was about at its brightest when discovered and on subsequent nights had already faded too much for any more useful photometry to be obtained.

Canopus was used to reduce the brightness measurements obtained that first night and to plot a lightcurve. Although the rises and falls from max. to min. in approx 10 minutes that were noticed at the time the images were taken were visible, the variations were not regular, indicating that it may not be simply rotating in one axis, but probably tumbling. In the diagram below, "beating" can be seen in the maxima and minima as two competing periods cause constructive and destructive interference to the overall curve, indeed at about 0.57 on the x-axis a minimum is almost completely absent.

Solving for a single period gives a value of 43.8 minutes for the main variation (so 11 minutes between each maxima and minima). However, the second period has not yet been satisfactorily determined and so the final value of the main period is still undetermined and could be somewhat different to that given above.

Raw (unfolded) lightcurve of 2011 PE2 from 348 data points obtained 2011 Aug. 09 00:14-03:08 UT