On October 31st, 2015, NASA tracked a strange-looking comet as it made a close flyby of Earth. This asteroid, known as 2015 TB145, was monitored by the multiple observatories and radar installation of the agency’s Deep Space Network. Because of the timing and the skull-like appearance of this asteroid, scientists nicknamed it the “Death Comet”.
Naturally, there was no reason to worry, as the asteroid posed no threat and passed within about 498,900 km (310,000 mi) of Earth. But the timing and the appearance of the comet were nothing if not chilling. And coincidentally enough, the “Death Comet” (aka. “The Great Pumpkin Comet”), will be passing Earth for the second time, this time shortly after Halloween.
This simulation by Tom Ruen shows the trajectory of 2015 TB145 across the sky, showing tracer spheres spaced at one hour intervals along its path.
Halloween fireballs, a Supermoon and now a near-Earth asteroid flyby. What a week! While 2015 TB145 won’t be visible in binoculars because of its relative faintness and glare from a nearby waning gibbous Moon, you should be able to see it in an 8-inch telescope or larger telescope without too much difficulty.
Determined amateurs might even catch it in instruments as small as 4.5 inches especially tomorrow morning when the fleeing space mountain will brighten to around magnitude +10.
For western hemisphere observers, TB145 begins the evening in Orion’s Shield not far below the Hyades Cluster looking like a magnitude +11.5 star crawling northeast through the star field. By dawn on Halloween, it will top out around magnitude +10.2 as it zips through Taurus and Auriga traveling around 3-5° per hour depending on the time you look. For most of the night, TB145 will move swiftly enough to notice its motion in real time, resembling an Earth-orbiting satellite. Closest approach occurs around 17:00 UT (noon CDT) when it pass along bottom of the Big Dipper Bowl at around 10° hour. Amazing!
My hope is that these maps will help you spot and follow this zippy, aircraft carrier-sized boulder. Three of the four maps cover most of the time between 5:00 and 11:45 UT, equivalent to midnight CDT tonight to 6:45 a.m. tomorrow morning. I used the very latest orbital elements and hand plotted the positions (a tedious exercise but worth it!) at 15-minute intervals. For convenience, when you print them out, I’d suggest using a straight edge to draw a line connecting the position dots.
As we discussed in the previous Universe Today story, parallax comes into play when viewing any nearby Solar System object. Three of the maps show the asteroid’s position from the North Central U.S. One depicts the view from the South Central U.S. from 11-11:45 UT. Parallax is minor early on from midnight to 2 or 3 a.m. but becomes more significant near closest approach. This is based on comparisons I made between latitudes 47°-32° North.
I apologize for the limited number of maps in this article but hope these and the do-it-yourself approach described in the earlier article will be enough to set you on TB145’s trail.
As always when trying to spot asteroids on the move, pick a time and camp out at that spot with your telescope five minutes before the expected arrival time. Take the time to casually memorize the star patterns, so when the interloper arrives, you’ll pick it out straightaway. Again, depending on your location both east-west and north-south of the paths charted, TB145 may arrive a couple minutes earlier or later, but once you spot it, hold on tight. You’ll be going on a most exciting ride!
We’d love to hear from you whether or not you were successful seeing it. If the weather’s uncooperative or you don’t have a telescope, Gianluca Masi’s got your back. He’ll webcast the flyby live on his Virtual Telescope site starting at 7 p.m. CDT (0:00 UT) tonight Oct. 30-31.
Now let’s see the flyby of Earth from the asteroid’s point of view, also by Tom Ruen. Enjoy!
Trick or treat! I think we’re definitely in for a treat. 2015 TB145 will fly past Earth at a safe distance slightly farther than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 12:05 p.m. CDT (17:05 UT). Estimated at 1,300 feet (400-meters) across, this Great Pumpkin of an asteroid will be big enough and close enough to show in small telescopes.
The close approach of such of TB145 will make for great science opportunities, too. Several optical observatories and the radar capabilities of the agency’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California will be tracking this flying mountain as will many amateur astronomers. The 110-foot (34-meter) Goldstone antenna will ping the asteroid with radio waves; the returning echoes will be collected by dishes in West Virginia and Puerto Rico and used to construct images showing the object’s surface features, shape and dimensions. NASA scientists hope to obtain radar images of the asteroid as fine as about 7 feet (2 meters) per pixel.
“The close approach of 2015 TB145 at about 1.3 times the distance of the moon’s orbit, coupled with its size, suggests it will be one of the best asteroids for radar imaging we’ll see for several years,” said Lance Benner, of JPL, who leads NASA’s asteroid radar research program. “We plan to test a new capability to obtain radar images with two-meter resolution for the first time and hope to see unprecedented levels of detail.”
Astronomers first nabbed asteroid 2015 TB145 on Oct. 10, 2015, using the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) telescope atop Mt. Haleakala in Maui. According to the catalog of near-Earth objectskept by the Minor Planet Center, this is the closest currently known approach by an object this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 (about 2,600 feet or 800-m in size) zips by at about 1 lunar distance in August 2027.
The gravitational influence of the asteroid is so small it will have no detectable effect on the Moon or anything here on Earth, including our planet’s tides or tectonic plates. But the planet will certainly have an effect on the asteroid. Earth’s gravity will deflect TB145’s path during the close approach, making it tricky this far out to create an accurate map of its flight across the sky. That’s why the two maps I’ve included with this article are only approximate. As we get closer to Halloween, further refinements in the asteroid’s orbit will allow for more accurate path-making.
Because the asteroid passes so near Earth, parallax will shift its path north or south up to 1/2°. Parallax is the apparent shift in an object’s position against the more distant background stars depending on the observer’s location on Earth. You can see how parallax works using your eyes and a finger. Stick your arm straight out in front of you and hold up your index finger. Open and close your right and then your left eye in a back and forth blinking pattern and watch your finger jump back and forth across the more distant background. Each eye sees the thumb from a slightly different perspective, causing it to shift position against the distant scene.
This happens all the time with the Moon. You might see it conjunct with a bright planet where skywatchers on the opposite side of the planet see an occultation. That’s why it’s best to make your own map of TB145’s wild ride across the sky. When closest to Earth, the asteroid will cover a Full Moon diameter about every 3 minutes as it tears by us at 22 miles per second (35 km/sec). Without a good map, it’ll get away from you.
Method #1: Using Stellarium
Download the free sky-plotting program Stellarium. Once you’ve set your location, either hit F2 or click on the Configuration icon in the lower left corner of your screen. Now select the Plugins tab then Solar System Editor. Click on Configure at the bottom of the tab, choose Solar System and click Import orbital elements in MPC format.
Next, select the Asteroids option and then from the bookmarks list, choose MPCORB: near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and then Get orbital elements. Allow the list — a very large one — to load then scroll through it until you find 2015 TD145 and put a check mark in the box. Then click Add objects.
Still with me? OK, close the Solar System editor and press F3 or select the magnifying glass icon in the lower left corner of your screen, then type in the asteroid’s name exactly as 2015 TD145. Hit enter and you’ll see a set of rotating red crosshairs. Bingo! This where the asteroid will be at the time you chose. You can adjust your magnitude range, field of view and even download additional files of fainter stars and deep sky objects. Unfortunately, Stellarium can’t draw an arc showing TB145’s changing position with time. Cross your fingers that appears in the next iteration.
Method #2: Download up-to-date orbital elements into your sky-charting program
Let’s say you already have a sky-charting program like Guide, Dance of the Planets, MegaStar or Starry Night. Go to the Minor Planet &Comet Ephemeris Serviceand type in 2015 TB145 in the big, blank box. Next, scroll down and select your program from the list and click on Get Ephemerides/HTML page. Save the file of orbital elements that pops up and place into the appropriate folder in your program. Open your program, select 2015 TB145 and make a chart!
Method #3: Manually input orbital elements into your program
You can also go to JPL’s Horizons site for the very latest orbital elements you can manually input in your program. 2015 TB145 is expected to be as bright as magnitude +10.1 (no problem in a 4.5-inch scope) but that occurs during the afternoon for the Americas. The Middle East and Asia are the place to be for closest approach. Peak brightness over the U.S. will occur before dawn on Halloween, so you can begin observation around 11 p.m. local time Friday evening October 30 when Orion comes up in the east. The asteroid starts shines at around magnitude +11-11.5 that evening and brightens overnight to around +10.3-10.5 before dawn for the Americas.
A word about tracking fast-moving asteroids. I’ve found that the best way to catch sight of one is to “camp” at the place they’ll pass at a certain time. Say you want to see TB145 at 1:15 a.m. October 31. Make a chart that shows its position every 15 minutes. Five minutes before it arrives at the 1:15 a.m. spot, point your telescope there and wait for a “moving star” to enter the field of view. If you don’t see it right way, wait a few minutes and pan around to the north and south of the location. By the way, the asteroid will pass less than a degree northwest of the Crab Nebula (M1) in Taurus around 10:30 UT (5:30 a.m. CDT).
Be aware that the bright, waning gibbous Moon will be within 10° of the asteroid when it’s best visible in the Americas. While this will make observing the asteroid more challenging, don’t let it stop you from trying. If bad weather gets in the way, Gianluca Masi has you covered. He’ll live-stream the flyby on his Virtual Telescope sitebeginning at 0:00 UT (7 p.m CDT) on October 31st.
One way or another, we’ll all have a shot at seeing the Great Pumpkin asteroid this Halloween.
UPDATE Oct. 27, 2015: There’s been some discussion about TB145’s orbit resembling that of a comet along with speculation it might be a dead or dormant comet. Amateur and professional astronomers have been watching it closely, looking for hints of activity such as a fuzzy coma. So far, photos show the asteroid as completely stellar.
I also wanted to update you on its visibility. Those with 10-inch or larger telescopes can begin looking for the object Thursday night Oct. 29th when it reaches magnitude +13.5. The following night it leaps to +11.5 with a peak brightness of +10.0 occurring around 14:00 UT (9 a.m. CDT) on Halloween. TB145 fades rapidly thereafter – down to 15th magnitude just 8 hours later.