Eclipse Prediction and Orbit Improvement for Asteroids: Theory and Application to Near Earth Asteroids
Asteroids can be eclipsed by other bodies in the Solar System, but no direct observation of an asteroid eclipse has been reported to date. We describe a statistical method to predict an eclipse for an asteroid based on the analysis of the orbital elements covariance matrix. By propagating a set of Virtual Asteroids to an epoch correspondent to a close approach with a Solar System planet or natural satellite, it is possible to estimate the probability of a partial or total eclipse. The direct observation of an eclipse can provide data useful to improve the asteroid orbit, especially for dim asteroids typically observed only for a few days. We propose two different methods: the first, based on the inclusion of the apparent magnitude residuals into the orbit's least squares minimization process, capable of improving the asteroid's nominal orbit and the related covariance matrix; the second, based on weighting different Virtual Asteroids in relation to their apparent magnitude during the eclipse, useful for recovery purposes. As an application, we have numerically investigated the possibility of a Near Earth Asteroid eclipsed by the Moon or the Earth in the 1990-2050 period. A total of 74 distinct eclipses have been found, involving 59 asteroids. In particular, the asteroid (99942) Apophis has a probability of about 74% to enter the Moon's penumbra cone and a probability of about 6% to enter the umbra cone on April 14, 2029, less than six hours after a very close approach to Earth.