Watch Asteroid 3122 Florence Zip Past Earth This Weekend

NEO asteroid
An artist's conception of an NEO asteroid orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL.
NEO asteroid
An artist’s conception of an NEO asteroid similar to 3122 Florence orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Ready to hunt for low-flying space rocks? We’ve got an interesting pass of a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) this upcoming U.S. Labor Day weekend, one that just slides over the +10th magnitude line into binocular range.

We’re talking about asteroid 3122 Florence, which passes 4.4 million miles from our fair planet (that’s 7 million kilometers, about 18 times the distance from Earth to the Moon) this Friday on September 1st at 12:06 Universal Time (UT)/ 8:06 AM Eastern Daylight Saving Time (EDT).

Universe Today ran an article on the close pass about a week ago. Now, we’d like to show you how to see this asteroid as it glides by.

Ordinarily, a four million mile pass (about 4.7% of an astronomical unit, just under the criterion to make 3122 Florence a Near Earth Object) isn’t enough to grab our attention. Lots of asteroids pass closer weekly, and 3122 Florence is certainly no danger to the Earth this or any week in the near future. What makes this asteroid an attractive target is its size: NASA’s NEOWISE and Spitzer infrared telescope missions estimate that 3122 Florence is about 2.7 miles (4.4 kilometers) in diameter, a pretty good-sized chunk of rock as near Earth asteroids go.

Florence orbit
The inclined orbit of 3122 Florence. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The last large asteroid with a similar close approach was 4179 Toutatis, which passed just under four lunar distances (a little under a million miles) from the Earth on September 29th, 2004.

Asteroid 3122 Florence (1981 ET3) was discovered by prolific asteroid hunter Schelte J. Bus from Siding Spring observatory in Australia on the night of March 2nd, 1981. Named after social reformer and founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale, this weekend’s pass is the closest 3122 Florence gets to Earth over a 600 year plus span, running from 1890 (well before its discovery) out past 2500 AD.

Plans are afoot to ping 3122 Florence using Goldstone and Arecibo radars as it passes by the weekend. we might just see if it has a any attending moonlets or a strange bifurcated shape like comets 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko or Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková very soon.

2014 JO25
Asteroid 2014 JO25 imaged by Arecibo earlier this year… are contact binary ‘rubber-duck’ shaped asteroids and comets a thing? Credit: NASA/Arecibo/NSF.

3122 Florence has an inclined orbit, tilted 22 degrees in respect to the ecliptic plane. Orbiting the Sun once every 859 days, 3122 Florence travels from around 1 to 2.5 AUs from the Sun, making it an Amor class asteroid which journeys beyond the orbit of Mars and approaches but doesn’t pass interior to the orbit of the Earth.

This week’s pass sees 3122 Florence rapidly vaulting up from the southern to northern hemisphere.

This apparition culminates on Friday, September 1st, at 12:06 UT as the asteroid crosses the along the border of the constellations Equuleus and Delphinus at closest approach, reaching +9th magnitude. 3122 Florence will be moving at 20′ per hour (that’s about 2/3rds the diameter of the Full Moon) at closest approach, fast enough that you’ll notice its motion against the background stars in a low power field of view after about 10 minutes or so.

Path of Florence
The path of 3122 Florence through the sky this week, times for the tick marks are in EDT (UT-4 hours). Credit: Starry Night Education software.

3122 Florence crosses through the constellations Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius, Equuleus and Delphinus this week. Keep in mind, the Moon is headed towards Full next week on September 6th, making the next few evenings a good time to track this fleeting space rock down.

3122 Florence from August 28th, about 8 million kilometers from the Earth. The asteroid is the center dot, while the streak to the left is the geostationary satellite AMC-14. Credit: the Virtual Telescope Project.

Finding 3122 Florence

3122 Florence races across the ecliptic northward on the night of August 29th and also crosses the celestial equator on September 1st

Tonight is also a good time to track down 3122 Florence, as it passes just 16′ from +3.8 magnitude star Zeta Capricorni. It also threads its way through the tiny the diamond-shaped asterism of Delphinus the Dolphin just over week after its closest pass on the evening of Saturday, September 9th.

Currently, 3122 Florence is 45 degrees above the southern horizon around local midnight for observers based along 30 degrees north latitude. The best view during Friday’s pass is from the Pacific Rim, including Australia, New Zealand and surrounding regions at closest approach.

Earth view
The orientation of the Earth as seen from asteroid 3122 Florence during Friday’s closest approach. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

North American viewers will get a good view at local midnight just about eight hours prior to closest approach on the night of August 31st/September 1st, about 60 degrees above the southern horizon. The next good views occur the following evening about 16 hours after closest approach, as the asteroid is receding but 10 degrees higher above the southern horizon.

The 24 hour celestial path of of 3122 Florence through the night sky, centered on the September 1st closest approach. Tick mark times are in EDT (UT-4 hours). Created using Starry Night Education software.

A series short wide field exposures over about an hour revealing stars down to +10 magnitude should reveal the motion of 3122 Florence against the starry background. A good visual alternative is to sketch the suspect star field about 10 minutes apart, carefully looking for a ‘star’ that has moved during the intervening time.

JPL Horizons is a good place to generate accurate right ascension and declination coordinates for 3122 Florence to aid you in your quest. This one is distant enough to simple geocentric coordinates should suffice, and observer parallax shouldn’t shift the position of the asteroid significantly.

Clouded out? The good folks over at the Virtual Telescope Project will be featuring 3122 Florence during a live webcast starting on Thursday, August 31st at 19:30 UT/3:30 PM EDT.

We can be thankful that 3122 Florence isn’t headed Earthward, as it’s perhaps about half the size of the 10-15 kilometer diameter Chicxulub impactor that hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago, causing a very bad day for the dinosaurs. Plus, it would just be weird if an asteroid named after humanitarian Florence Nightingale caused the extinction of humanity…

And this is a great pre-show for a smaller and closer anticipated asteroid pass coming up in a few short weeks, as 2012 TC4 buzzes the Earth on October 12th, 2017.

Good luck in your quest to find 3122 Florence… let us know what you see!

Large Near-Earth Asteroid Will Pass Earth by This September

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.

More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!

To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.

Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 7 million km (4.4 million mi). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:

“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”

Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).

This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.

Artist’s rendition of how far Florence will pass by Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.

For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.

Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:

Further Reading: NASA