Asteroid 2005 YU55 Gets Closer to Earth; “No Chance of an Impact”

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Yes, it’s coming. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it will be even closer than the Moon. And yes… we’re completely safe.

The 400-meter-wide asteroid 2005 YU55 is currently zipping through the inner Solar System at over 13 km (8 miles) a second. On Tuesday, November 8, at 6:28 p.m. EST, it will pass Earth, coming within 325,000 km (202,000 miles). This is indeed within the Moon’s orbit (although YU55’s trajectory puts it a bit above the exact plane of the Earth-Moon alignment.) Still, it is the closest pass by such a large object since 1976… yet, NASA scientists aren’t concerned. Why?

Because its orbit has been well studied, there’s nothing in its way, and frankly there’s simply nothing it will do to affect Earth.

Animation of 2005 YU55's trajectory on Nov. 8. (NASA/JPL) Click to play.

Period.

2005 YU55’s miniscule gravity will not cause earthquakes. It has no magnetic field. It will not strike another object, or the Moon, or the Earth. It will not come into contact with cometary debris, Elenin, a black dwarf, Planet X, or Nibiru. (Not that those last three even exist.) No, YU55 will do exactly what it’s doing right now: passing through the Solar System. It will come, it will go, and hopefully NASA scientists – as well as many amateur astronomers worldwide – will have a chance to get a good look at it as it passes.

Scientists with NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observation Program will begin tracking YU55 on Friday, November 4 using the 70-meter radar telescope at the Deep Space Network in Goldstone, California , as well as with the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico beginning November 8. These facilities will continue to track it until the 10th.

This close pass will offer a great opportunity to get detailed radar imaging of YU55, an ancient C-type asteroid literally darker than coal. Since these objects can be difficult to observe using visible light, radar mapping can better reveal details about their surface and composition.

To help inform the public about YU55 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena recently hosted a live Q&A session on Ustream featuring specialists Marina Brozovic, a Goldstone Radar Team scientist, and Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program. They fielded questions sent in via chat and Twitter… a recording of the event in its entirety can be seen below:



Video streaming by Ustream

Undoubtedly there will still be those who continue to spread misinformation about 2005 YU55. After all, they did the same with the now-disintegrated comet Elenin. But the truth is out there… and the truth is that there’s no danger, no cover-ups, no “plots”, and simply no cause for concern.

“It’s completely safe… no chance of an impact.”

– Don Yeomans, JPL

Read more about YU55 on our previous post or  on NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program site.

UPDATE: JPL has released a brief video about YU55 featuring research scientist Lance Benner, who specializes in radar imaging of near-Earth objects:

Although classified as a potentially hazardous object, 2005 YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over at least the next 100 years. However, this will be the closest approach to date by an object this large that we know about in advance and an event of this type will not happen again until 2028 when asteroid (153814) 2001 WN5 will pass to within 0.6 lunar distances. – Near-Earth Object Program, JPL

Comet Elenin Disintegrated?

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Comet Elenin, the supposed “doomsday comet” that has inspired so much confusion and controversy since its discovery in December 2010,  may have broken apart completely during its recent pass around the Sun.

Discoverer Leonid Elenin posted the image above earlier today on his website, SpaceObs.org. Taken with the International Scientific Optical Network’s 18″ telescope in New Mexico (ISON-NM), it shows what may be the remnants of Elenin, a faint cloud barely visible after its exit from behind the Sun.

“On the left you can see possible position of this ‘cloud’,” Leonid writes. “Brightness of this object does not exceed 18m, which means what now, magnitude of the comet is lower then predicted on 12m. Hopefully in the near future debris of the comet will be observed on a large telescopes, and perhaps we’ll see some details of this ‘cloud’.”

Ground-based viewing of Elenin’s remains may be hampered over the next few days by the full Moon, he adds.

Although many rumors have been spread about the catastrophic danger Elenin poses to humans, in reality the comet was never a threat. Not expected to come any closer than 22 million miles (35 million km) to Earth, it’s been previously speculated that Elenin would most likely disintegrate during its current orbit.

“I don’t know why fearmongers [chose] my comet,” Leonid Elenin told Universe Today. “I received many letters from scared people. But if they believe in conspiracy theories I can’t help them.”

Hopefully this helps put some of the doomsday nonsense to rest!

See Leonid’s latest post on his site here.

Image: ISON-NM Observatory

Worried About Comet Elenin? FAQs from Ian Musgrave

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Astronomer and blogger Ian Musgrave from South Australia has been active in debunking the misinformation and nonsense that is being disseminated about Comet Elenin. He has written several wonderful posts featuring the actual realities of this long-period lump of dirty ice that has, for some reason, attracted the attention of doomsdayers, 2012ers, and end-of-the-world scaremongers. Earlier this week, Ian’s Elenin posts on his Astroblog were taken down by the web host, as someone filed a claim for alleged violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). “Given that there is no copyrighted material on these pages, with either material generated entirely by me or links to and citation of publicly available material, I believe this was just a frivolous attack on people countering Elenin nonsense” Ian said. Astroblog was not the only site that was targeted, and thankfully, Ian’s web host agreed that the claim was without merit, and the posts are back online. In the interim, however, Universe Today offered to publish Ian’s excellent “Comet Elenin, a FAQ for the Worried” post, and even though the original is now available again, Ian and I decided to still post this on UT so that more people with questions about Comet Elenin would have the chance to have their worries allayed. Have your questions answered below.

Will Comet Elenin Hit Earth?: No, its closest approach is 0.23 AU on Oct 16, 2011, where 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. To put this in perspective, this is only a little closer than the closest approach of Venus to Earth, and roughly 100 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This distance is from the latest MPEC ephemeris which is based on over 100 observations from multiple observatories that have been continuously tracking the comet, so it won’t change appreciably.

Surely if Elenin Was Going to Hit the Earth NASA/the Government Would Hush it Up? Which government? The Australian Government, the UK Government? The Italian Government? The South African Government? Amateur astronomers world wide are following this comet and continually talking to each other. The have the programs to work out where the comet is going. If the comet was coming anywhere near us, the amateur community would be first to know, and there is no keeping them quite. Consider how wide spread the information is about Apophis, which is a real, if extremely marginal, hazard.

Will it Cause Earthquakes, Abnormally High Tides or Other Disasters: No, Elenin is a mere 3-5 kilometres across and has less than a billionth of the tidal force of the Moon at closest approach (as well as a negligible magnetic field). If the Moon can’t cause the poles to tip, cause massive tidal floods or earthquakes, Comet 2010 X1 Elenin won’t. We’ve been closer to other comets before with no ill effect.

But What About Mensur Omerbashich’s Paper that Says Elenin is Causing Earthquakes? It shows nothing of the sort, earthquakes are no more common during comet alignments than at any other time.

But it’s bigger than Jupiter! No, that’s the coma , the thin haze of gas and dust that surrounds the comet nucleus. The nucleus of C/2010 X1 Elenin is roughly 3-4 Km in diameter and Elenin has a coma around 50,000 km wide at the time of writing (which is a third of the diameter of Jupiter). The average density of the coma is about the same as the density of the atmosphere on the Moon. A coma is a feature of all comets that approach the Sun closely, for example comet 81P Wild (nucleus 4 Km diameter) had a coma of 50,000 Km and 103P Hartley had a coma of 150,000 Km. The Great Comet of 1811 had a nucleus of around 30km in diameter and had a coma nearly as big as the Sun. Comet Halley is 6×15 km and had a coma 100,000 km wide when it last approached Earth. We survived them all (and 103P Hartley came nearly twice as close as Elenin will), and we will survive Elenin without incident.

But I Can See a Picture of it in WikiSky, it’s HUGE! That is the carbon star CW Leonis.

Is Elenin a Moon of a Brown Dwarf Star? No.

But Brown Dwarf Stars are so Cold, you Can’t See Them. No, coldest detected so far is ~370K (about the temperature of a hot cup of tea), the the warmest are around 2200 K, and most range between 500-1000 K. They may not produce much visible light, but they reflect light. Jupiter has a composition similar to those of Brown Dwarf stars. Jupiter’s cloud tops are a chilly 128 K and it reflects light just fine. Any Brown Dwarf in the inner solar system would be painfully obvious.

Will Going Through the Comets Tail Affect Us? No, should the rather small tail of Elenin actually pass over us, it’s doing a pretty good imitation of a vacuum (about 100 atoms per cm3). We have been through bigger and denser comet tails before with no effect whatsoever (especially the Great Comet of 1861).

Why isn’t Comet Elenin in the News? For the same reason that the other 16 comets discovered in 2010 didn’t get in the news, or the 5 comets discovered in 2011. They are all dim. The News is only interested in comets that are spectacular, readily visible to the unaided eye or are being visited by spacecraft. Comet 2009 P1 will be as bright, if not brighter than C/2010 X1 Elenin, but that’s not in the news either. Amateur and professional astronomers are watching comet Elenin and others avidly, but the news channels don’t care about our obsessions with faint fuzzies.

Why Can’t I Find Information of Elenin at the NASA Website? Because NASA is not the arbiter of all things astronomical. You won’t find information on C/2009 P1, C/2011 C1 or any of the faint comets discovered during 2010 and 2011. NASA does have information of comets that its spacecraft have visited, or are interesting in some other way, but it’s not an exhaustive comet site like Cometography or Aerith.

(editor’s note, NASA and JPL’s Near Earth Object Office did publish an article about Comet Elenin in May, 2011, which can be found at this link, confirming it will safely fly past Earth.)

I Saw Comet Elenin Near the Sun in August 2010/Now: In August 2010 only really powerful telescopes could see Elenin. You saw Venus. If you are seeing something bright near the Sun in the morning sky now, it’s Venus.

How Can I Tell What IS in the Sky and Avoid The Venus Confusion? For freeware standalone programs there is Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium (my favourite). For Web based solutions Skyview Cafe, Sky-Map and GoogleEarth (KMZ file here) all work.

Where Can I Find Orbital Elements for Celestia or Stellarium? Here.

Where Can I Find Images of Elenin? Here, and here and a nice image of C/2010 X1 near to NGC 3376 is here.

I have Photographed/ Seen a Photograph of a Double Sun, is this Elenin? It’s lens flare.

Other Good Links:

Leonid Elenin calculates what would happen to planets if a Brown Dwarf was in the inner solar system.

The Sceptics on Elenin.

Astronotes, 10 facts you need to know about Elenin.

Astronomy Beat on Elenin (PDF)

See this original post by Ian Musgrave on Astroblog

Comet Elenin: Just Passing By

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It starts out innocently enough: a small speck against a field of background stars, barely noticeable in the image data. But… it’s a speck that wasn’t there before. Subsequent images confirm its existence – there’s something out there. Something bright, something large, and it’s moving through our solar system very quickly. The faint blur indicates that it’s a comet, an icy visitor from the outermost reaches of the solar system. And it’s headed straight toward Earth.

Exhaustive calculations are run and re-run. Computer simulations are executed. All possibilities are taken into consideration, and yet there’s no alternative to be found; our world will face a close encounter with a comet in mere months’ time. Phone calls are made, a flurry of electronic messages fly between computer terminals across the world, consultations are held with top experts in the field. We are unprepared… what can we do? What does this mean for civilization as we know it? What will this speeding icy bullet from outer space do to our planet?

The answer? Nothing.

Nothing at all. In fact, it probably won’t even be very interesting to look at – if you can even find it when it passes by.

(Sorry for the let-down.)

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past several months regarding Comet Elenin, a.k.a. C/2010 X1,  which was discovered by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010. Elenin spotted the comet using a telescope in New Mexico remotely from his location in Lyubertsy, Russia. At that time it was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth… in the time since it has closed the distance considerably, and is now around 270 million km away. Elenin is a long-period comet, which means it has a rather large orbit around the Sun… it comes in from a vast distance, swings around the Sun and heads back out to the depths of the solar system – a round trip lasting over 10,000 years. During its current trip it will pass by Earth on October 16, coming as close as 35 million km (22 million miles).

Elenin's orbit via the JPL Small-Body Database Browser

Yes, 22 million miles.

That’s pretty far.

Way too far for us to be affected by anything a comet has to offer. Especially a not-particularly-large comet like Elenin.

Some of the doomy-gloomy internet sites have been mentioning the size of Elenin as being 80,000 km across. This is a scary, exaggerated number that may be referring to the size of Elenin’s coma – a hazy cloud of icy particles that surrounds a much, much smaller nucleus. The coma can be extensive but is insubstantial; it’s akin to icy cigarette smoke. Less than that, in fact… a comet’s coma and tail are even more of a vacuum than can be reproduced in a lab on Earth! In reality most comets have a nucleus smaller than 10km…that’s less than a billionth the mass of Earth (and a far cry from 80,000 km.) We have no reason to think that Elenin is any larger than this – it’s most likely smaller.

Ok, but how about the gravitational and/or magnetic effect of a comet passing by Earth? That’s surely got to do something, right? To Earth’s crust, or the tides? For the answer to that, I will refer to Don Yeomans, a researcher at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL:

“Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets. And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt,” said Yeomans. “So you’ve got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers. It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

“It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean’s tides than comet Elenin ever will.”

– Don Yeomans, NASA / JPL

And as far as the effect from Elenin’s magnetic field goes… well, there is no effect. Elenin, like all comets, doesn’t have a magnetic field. Not much else to say there.

But the claims surrounding Elenin have gone much further toward the absurd. That it’s going to encounter another object and change course to one that will cause it to impact Earth, or that it’s not a comet at all but actually a planet – Nibiru, perhaps? – and is on a collision course with our own. Or (and I particularly like this one) that alien spaceships are trailing Elenin in such a way as to remain undetected until it’s too late and then they’ll take over Earth, stealing our water and natural resources and turning us all into slaves and/or space munchies… or however the stories go. (Of course the government and NASA and Al Gore and Al Gore’s hamster are all in cahoots and are withholding this information from the rest of us. That’s a given.) These stories are all just that – stories – and have not a shred of science to them, other than a heaping dose of science fiction.

“We live in nervous times, and conspiracy theories and predictions of disaster are more popular than ever. I like to use the word cosmophobia for this growing fear of astronomical objects and phenomena, which periodically runs amuck on the Internet. Ironically, in pre-scientific times, comets were often thought to be harbingers of disaster, mostly because they seemed to arrive unpredictably – unlike the movements of the planets and stars, which could be tracked on a daily and yearly basis.”

– David Morrison, planetary astronomer and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center

The bottom line is this: Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin is coming, and it will pass by Earth at an extremely safe distance – 100 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. It will not be changing direction between now and then, it will not exert any gravitational effect on Earth, its magnetic field is nonexistent and there are no Star Destroyers cruising in its wake. The biggest effect it will have on Earth is what we are able to learn about it as it passes – after all, it is a visitor from the far reaches of our solar system and we won’t be seeing it again for a very, very long time.

I’m sure we’ll have found something else to be worried about long before then.

“This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system’s planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That’s pretty cool.”

– Don Yeomans

For more information about Elenin, check out this JPL news release featuring Don Yeomans, and there’s a special public issue of Astronomy Beat, a newsletter from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, that features David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center discussing many of the misconceptions about Elenin.

An updated chart of Elenin’s orbit and statistics can be viewed here.

Top image © Jason Major