2014 JO25 Flies By Earth — See It Tonight

Credit; NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR
This composite of 30 images of asteroid 2014 JO25 was generated with radar data collected using NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert on Tuesday April 18. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

Asteroid 2014 JO25, discovered in 2014 by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, was in the spotlight today (April 19) when it flew by Earth at just four times the distance of the Moon. Today’s encounter is the closest the object has come to the Earth in 400 years and will be its closest approach for at least the next 500 years.

Lots of asteroids zip by our planet, and new ones are discovered every week. What makes 2014 JO25 different it’s one of nearly 1,800 PHAs (Potentially Hazardous Asteroids) that are big enough and occasionally pass close enough to Earth to be of concern. PHAs have diameters of at least 100-150 meters (330-490 feet) and pass less than 0.05 a.u (7.5 million km / 4.6 million miles) from our planet. Good thing for earthlings, no known PHA is predicted to impact Earth for at least the next 100 years.

Most of these Earth-approachers are on the small side, only a few to a few dozen meters (yards) across. 2014 JO25 was originally estimated at ~2,000 feet wide, but thanks to radar observations made the past couple days, we now know it’s nearly twice that size. Radar images of asteroid were made early this morning with NASA’s 230-foot (70-meter) radio antenna at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. They reveal a peanut-shaped asteroid that rotates about once every 5 hours and show details as small as 25 feet.

NASA radar images and animation of asteroid 2015 JO25

The larger of the two lobes is about 2,000 feet (620 meters) across, making the total length closer to 4,000 feet. That’s similar in size (though not as long) as the Rock of Gibraltar that stands at the southwestern tip of Europe at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

“The asteroid has a contact binary structure — two lobes connected by a neck-like region,” said Shantanu Naidu, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the Goldstone observations. “The images show flat facets, concavities and angular topography.” Contact binaries form when two separate asteroids come close enough together to touch and meld as one.

The Goldstone dish dish, based in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Cal. is used for radar mapping of planets, comets, asteroids and the Moon. Credit: NASA

Radar observations of the asteroid have also been underway at the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with more observations coming today through the 21st which may show even finer details. The technique of pinging asteroids with radio waves and eking out information based on the returning echoes has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids.

When these relics from the early solar system pass relatively close to Earth, astronomers can glean their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features, and roughness, as well as determine their orbits with precision.

Because of 2014 JO25’s relatively large size and proximity, it’s bright enough to spot in a small telescope this evening. It will shine around magnitude +10.9 from North America tonight as it travels south-southwest across the dim constellation Coma Berenices behind the tail of Leo the Lion. A good map and 3-inch or larger telescope should show it.

Use the maps at this link to help you find and track the asteroid tonight. The key to spotting it is to allow time to identify and get familiar with the star field the asteroid will pass through 10 to 15 minutes in advance — then lay in wait for the moving object. Don’t be surprised if 2014 JO25 deviates a little from the predicted path depending on your location and late changes to its orbit, so keep watch not only on the path but around it, too. Good luck!

NEO Asteroid 2014 JO25 Set to Buzz Earth on April 19th

Artist's concept of a large asteroid passing by the Earth-Moon system. Credit: A combination of ESO/NASA images courtesy of Jason Major/Lights in the Dark.
Missed us… a concept image of a large asteroid passing by the Earth-Moon system. Credit: A combination of ESO/NASA images courtesy of Jason Major/Lights in the Dark.

It’s a shooting gallery out there. The spattered face of Earth’s Moon and large impact sites such as Meteor Crater outside of Flagstaff, Arizona remind us that we still inhabit a dangerous neck of the solar neighborhood. But despite the inevitable cries proclaiming the “End of the World of the Week” this coming weekend, humanity can breathe a collective sigh of relief next Wednesday on April 19th, when asteroid 2014 JO25 passes safely by the Earth.

To be sure, lots of smaller space rocks pass by the Earth closer than the Moon (that’s an average of 240,000 miles distant) on a monthly basis. Take for example 4-meter asteroid 2017 GM, which passed just 16,000 kilometers distant on April 4th. What makes 2014 JO25 special is its size: measurements from NASA’s NEOWISE mission suggest that 2014 JO25 is about 2,000 feet (650 meters) along its longest axis, about twice the length of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. 2014 JO25 is passing 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) or 4.6 times the Earth-Moon distance on Wednesday, the closest large asteroid pass since 5-km Toutatis in September, 2004. The next predicted large asteroid pass near Earth is 1999 AN10, set to pass 1 LD (lunar distance) from the Earth in 2027.

4179 Toutatis as seen from China’s Chang’e 2 spacecraft. Credit: CNSA

This is also the closest passage of 2014 JO25 near the Earth for a 900 year span.

Discovered on May 5th, 2014 by the Catalina Sky survey, asteroid 2014 JO25 orbits the Sun once every three years, taking it from a perihelion of 0.237 AU (interior to Mercury’s orbit) out to an aphelion of 3.9 distant in the asteroid belt, interior to Jupiter’s orbit.

The orbit of NEO asteroid 2014 JO25. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Finding 2014 JO25 at its Closest Approach

With an estimated albedo (surface brightness) about twice that the lunar surface, 2014 JO25 will reach magnitude +10 to +11 on closest approach on Wednesday. Currently low in the dawn sky in the Square of Pegasus asterism, asteroid 2014 JO25 passed perihelion sunward as seen from the Earth at 1.015 Astronomical Units (AU) distant on March 11th. At its closest to the Earth on April 19th at 12:24 Universal Time (UT)/6:24 AM EDT, asteroid 2014 JO25 will skim the jagged Draco-Ursa Minor border below the bowl of the Little Dipper, moving at a whopping three degrees per hour. Sitting just 25 degrees from the north celestial pole on closest approach, catching sight of 2014 JO25 at favors western North America and northeastern Asia, though the eastern half of North America and Europe have a shot at the asteroid a few hours prior to closest approach in the early morning hours of April 19th. North American viewers get another shot at catching the fleeting asteroid later the same evening 13 hours after closest approach as the asteroid sails through the galaxy-rich constellation Coma Berenices.

The 24 hour path of asteroid 2014 JO25 from midnight UT April 18th through April 19th. (note: hourly time hacks are in Eastern Daylight Saving Time EDT UT-4). Credit: Starry Night Education software.

At +11th magnitude, you’ll need a telescope of at least 6” aperture or larger and a good star chart to nab 2014 JO25 as it glides against the starry background. Fellow Universe Today contributor Bob King has some great star charts of the pass over at Sky & Telescope. The Moon will be at Last Quarter phase on the morning of the 19th, providing moderate light pollution.

Plans are also afoot for NASA to ping asteroid 2014 JO25 using Arecibo and Goldstone radar… expect stunning animations to follow next week.

Clouded out? The good folks at the Virtual Telescope Project have you covered, with a live webcast featuring the passage of NEO 2014 JO25 starting at 21:30 UT/5:30 PM EDT on April 19th.

And if you’re out hunting for asteroids on the coming mornings, there are currently two bright binocular comets in the dawn sky to keep you company: Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy in the constellation Andromeda and Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS in Aquarius. Both are currently performing above expectations at about magnitude +7.

A busy neighborhood: Known asteroids as of April 1st, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL.

“What if” an asteroid the size of 2014 JO25 hit the Earth? Well, the Chelyabinsk meteor was an estimated 20 meters in size; the impactor that formed Meteor Crater in Arizona was about 50 meters in diameter. The Chicxulub event off the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago was an estimated 10 kilometer-sized impactor well over ten orders of magnitude bigger than 2014 JO25. While the impact of a 600 meter asteroid would be a noteworthy event and a bad day locally, it would pale in comparison to an extinction level event.

All something to consider, as you watch the faint dot of asteroid 2014 JO25 pass harmlessly by the Earth and through the news cycle for the coming week.