45 meter Asteroid to Skirt Very Near Earth on Feb 15

Our home planet is due for a record setting space encounter on Friday (Feb. 15) of this week, when a space rock roughly half a football field wide skirts very close by Earth at break neck speed and well inside the plethora of hugely expensive communications and weather satellites that ring around us in geosynchronous orbit.

“There is no possibility of an Earth impact” by the Near Earth Asteroid (NEO) known as 2012 DA 14, said Don Yeomans, NASA’s foremost asteroid expert at a media briefing. Well that’s good news for us – but a little late for the dinosaurs.

At its closest approach in less than 4 days, the 45 meter (150 feet) wide Asteroid 2012 DA14 will zoom by within an altitude of 27,700 kilometers (17,200 miles). That is some 8000 km (5000 miles) inside the ring of geosynchronous satellites, but far above most Earth orbiting satellites, including the 6 person crew currently working aboard the International Space Station.

Although the likelihood of a satellite collision is extremely remote, NASA is actively working with satellite providers to inform them of the space rocks path.

The razor thin close shave takes place at about 2:24 p.m. EST (11:24 a.m. PST and 1924 UTC) as the asteroid passes swiftly by at a speed of about 7.8 kilometers per second (17,400 MPH)- or about 8 times the speed of a rifle bullet. For some perspective, it will be only about 1/13th of the distance to the moon at its closest.

“Asteroid 2012 DA14 will make a very close Earth approach, traveling rapidly from South to North and be moving at about two full moons per minute,” said Yeomans, who manages NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “That’s very fast for a celestial object.”

Diagram depicting the passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No known asteroid has ever passed so near to Earth.

“This is a record predicted close approach for a known object this size,” stated Yeomans. “Such close flybys happen every 40 years on average. An actual Earth collision would happen about every 1200 years.”

Read also: Asteroid 2012 DA14: Observing Prospects and How to See It

Yeomans said that if an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 fell to Earth, the impact effect would be similar to the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia. That was an air blast event that leveled trees over an area greater than about 800 square miles.

So the local effect on human cities for example of a 50 meter wide asteroid impact would be deadly and utterly devastating. But it would not be catastrophic to all life on Earth. Nevertheless, at this moment, Earth has no defenses against asteroids other than talk.

By comparison, the K-T event that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago was caused by an asteroid about 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. About 2/3 of all species went extinct. If 2012 DA14 impacted Earth the force would be equivalent to about 2.4 megatons of energy (2.4 million tons of TNT), said Yeomans.

Artists concept of meteoroide impact event

There is no danger to the ISS crew and apparently they won’t have any chance to observe it.

“The ISS is not positioned right for observations,” Lindley Johnson, program executive, Near Earth Object Observations Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington, told Universe Today.

“No NASA space-based assets will be making measurements,” Lindley told me. “The asteroid is moving to fast.”

However, radar astronomers do plan to take images around eight hours after the flyby using the Goldstone antenna in California’s Mojave Desert, which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Some skilful and knowledgeable Earthlings might have a chance to see the asteroid hurtling by with binoculars or a small telescope.

“The asteroid will be observable in the dark sky in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia, achieving about 7.5 magnitude, somewhat fainter than naked eye visibility,” explained Yeomans. “Closest approach will be over Indonesia.”

Astronomers at the La Sagra Sky Survey program in southern Spain discovered the asteroid in February 2012 just after its last Earth flyby, at a fairly distant 7 Earth-Moon distances. They reported the finding to the Minor Planet Center.

NASA’s NEO group and collaborators in Pisa, Italy then use such data to predict future flight paths and look into past trajectories as well.

Yeomans said that the Feb 15 flyby will be the closest for the next 100 years and its orbit will be perturbed so that it comes back less frequently – changing its orbital class from Apollo to Aten.

Due to its small size and recent discovery, not much is known about the composition of 2012 DA14. It might be silicate rock.

Small space rocks hit Earth on a daily basis amounting to about 100 tons. Car sized rocks hit weekly.

Stay Alert !

Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Recent Posts

Astronomers Detect the Faint Glow of Stars in Between Galaxies

Not all stars are members of galaxies. Some stars exist in the space between galaxies,…

15 mins ago

Astronomers Directly Image a Jupiter-Sized Planet Orbiting a Sunlike Star

The SHINE collaboration recently observed a Super-Jupiter within a young debris orbiting a nearby star.…

1 hour ago

Quasars Produce Giant Jets That Focus Like Lasers. Why They Focus is Still a Mystery, but it’s not Coming From the Galaxy Itself

New technologies bring new astronomical insights, which is especially satisfying when they help answer debates…

2 hours ago

Baby Gas Giants Cast Shadows on Their Siblings

A team of astronomers has caught glimpses of gas giants forming around a very young…

6 hours ago

The Technique for Detecting Meteors Could be Used to Find Dark Matter Particles Entering the Atmosphere

Researchers from Ohio State University have come up with a novel method to detect dark…

8 hours ago

The Second-Closest Supermassive Black Hole Might be in a Nearby Dwarf Galaxy

There's a little galaxy in the Milky Way's cosmic neighborhood called Leo 1. It's a…

18 hours ago