Last month an amateur team of astronomers from the La Sagra Sky Survey Observatory in southeast Spain discovered an asteroid roughly 150 feet wide as it flew by our planet at a distance seven times further than the moon. The same chunk of space rock will make a much closer approach next February, when it passes by Earth at a distance of roughly 17,000 miles – closer than many communication and weather satellites which are currently in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above Earth.
Designated as asteroid 2012 DA14, it will make its near-miss pass on February 15, 2013. “This is a safe distance, but it is still close enough to make the asteroid visible in normal binoculars,” said Detlef Koschny of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Situational Awareness office. “We will be keen to see the asteroid’s resulting orbit after the next close approach in order to compute any future risk of impact.” Researchers will also use the opportunity to better understand the gravitational effects the Earth and moon have on asteroids.
Although the asteroid will not impact Earth, the discovery of 2012 DA14 last month has shed more light on the importance of programs such as NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, or NEO, whose purpose is to detect, track, and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that pose a real threat to Earth. The asteroid’s orbit is very similar to our own, passing inside and outside Earth’s path twice a year and having an orbital period lasting 366 days – 1 day longer than a terrestrial Earth year. Highlighting the importance of programs such as NEO is the fact that asteroid 2012 DA14 was not discovered until after it had already passed by our planet on February 22.
An impact from an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14, which is estimated to be 150 feet wide, would normally incinerate in the atmosphere due to friction, but that is not to say the event would not cause significant destruction. In 1908 an asteroid roughly the same size as 2012 DA14 exploded in the skies above western Siberia with the force of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, causing a shockwave which struck the surface and snapped foot-wide trees and leveled the landscape over an area the size of London.
Thus far, 8,816 Near-Earth objects have been discovered, with 1,295 of those objects classified as potentially hazardous. Of the 8,816 objects discovered to date, 841 of those are estimated to have a diameter of 1 kilometer or larger. It’s believed that half a million Near-Earth objects the same size as 2012 DA14 have yet to be discovered.
For more information on NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, visit neo.jpl.nasa.gov