How to See the Spooktacular Halloween Flyby of Asteroid 2015 TB145

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.

Do I hear the doorbell ringing already?

Shining faintly at 18th magnitude on October 22, 2015 TB145 is already under study by amateur and professional astronomers. Its close approach will make for an excellent opportunity to learn a great deal about its surface properties and orbit. Watch for it to brighten up to magnitude +10.1 at peak, bright enough to see in a 4.5-inch telescope. Credit: Gianluca Masi
Shining faintly at 18th magnitude on October 22, 2015 TB145 is already under study by amateur and professional astronomers. Its close approach will make for an excellent opportunity to learn a great deal about its surface properties and orbit. Watch for it to brighten up to magnitude +10.1 at peak, bright enough to see in a 4.5-inch telescope. Credit: Gianluca Masi

UPDATE Oct. 30th — I’ve created several detailed maps to help you track TB145.

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.”

View of the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. Its orbit is inclined about 39° to the plane of the Solar System. Credit: P. Chodas (NASA/JPL - Caltech)
View of the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. Its orbit is inclined about 39° to the plane of the Solar System. Credit: P. Chodas (NASA/JPL – Caltech)

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 objects kept 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.

TB145's path starting at 4 hours UT on Oct. 31 (11 p.m. CDT Oct. 30). This view faces east. Tick marks show its hourly position. At the start of the path, the asteroid will shine around magnitude 11.4 but will gradually brighten through the night. Credit: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
TB145’s path starting at 4 hours UT on Oct. 31 (11 p.m. CDT Oct. 30). This view faces east. Tick marks show its hourly position. At the start of the path, the asteroid will shine around magnitude 11.4 but will gradually brighten through the night. To convert from UT, subtract 4 hours for EDT, 5 for CDT, 6 for MDT and 7 for PDT. Click for a large version. Credit: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

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 is a graphic depicting the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. The asteroid will safely fly past Earth sli ghtly farther out than the moon's orbit on Oct. 31 at 10:05 a.m. Pacific (1:05 p.m. EDT and 17:05 UTC). Image credit: P. Chodas (NASA/JPL - Caltech)
Graphic depicting the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. The asteroid will safely fly past Earth slightly farther out than the moon’s orbit on Halloween. Credit: P. Chodas (NASA/JPL – Caltech)

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.

Stellarium view of the sky and featured asteroid seen from northern, Minnesota at 11:55 p.m. October 30, 2015.
Stellarium view of the sky and featured asteroid seen from northern, Minnesota at 11:55 p.m. October 30, 2015. Notice that a bright, waning gibbous Moon will be nearby during the best viewing opportunities for the Americas, which will make 2015 TB145 a little harder to spot.

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

2015 TB145 belongs to the Apollo family of asteroids, whose orbits cross that of Earth. Amor asteroids approach but don't cross, while Atens also cross Earth's path but spend most of their time inside our orbit. Credit: ESA
2015 TB145 belongs to the Apollo family of asteroids, whose orbits cross that of Earth. Amor asteroids approach but don’t cross, while Atens also cross Earth’s path but spend most of their time inside our orbit. Credit: ESA

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 Service and 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 site beginning 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.

2015 TB145 looks stellar in this photo taken on October 24th when it glowed at only 16th magnitude. Credit: Peter Lake
2015 TB145 looks stellar in this photo taken on October 24th when it glowed at only 16th magnitude. Credit: Peter Lake

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.

Big Asteroid 2004 BL86 Buzzes Earth on January 26: How to See it in Your Telescope

A lot of asteroids pass near Earth every year. Many are the size of a house, make close flybys and zoom out of the headlines. 2004 BL86 is a bit different. On Monday evening January 26th, it will become the largest asteroid to pass closest to Earth until 2027 when 1999 AN10 will approach within one lunar distance.

Big is good. 2004 BL86 checks in at 2,230 feet (680-m) wide or nearly half a mile. Add up its significant size and relatively close approach – 745,000 miles (1.2 million km) – and something wonderful happens. This newsy space rock is expected to reach magnitude +9.0, bright enough to see in a 3-inch telescope or even large binoculars.

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Click to see an animation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will safely pass by the Earth on January 26th. Closest approach occurs around 10 a.m (CST) that day. The asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Click to see an animation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a rare opportunity then to see an Earth-approaching asteroid so easily. All you need is a good map as 2004 BL86 will be zipping along at two arc seconds per second or two degrees (four Moon diameters) per hour. That means you’ll see it move in real time like a slow satellite inching its way across the sky. Cool!

As you can see from its name, 2004 BL86 was discovered 11 years ago in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR), an MIT Lincoln Laboratory program to track near-Earth objects  funded by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. As of September 15, 2011, the search has swept up 2,423 new asteroids and 279 new comets.

Map showing the hourly progress of 2004 BL86 Monday evening January 26th as it treks across Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. Stars are shown to magnitude +9. The number at the tick marks show the time (CST) each hour starting at 6 p.m., then 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and so on. Click for a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
Map showing the hourly progress of 2004 BL86 Monday evening January 26th as it treks across Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. Stars are shown to magnitude +9. Numbers at the tick marks show the time (CST) each hour starting at 6 p.m., then 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and so on. Click for a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

All asteroids with well-known orbits receive a number. The first asteroid, 1 Ceres, was discovered in 1801. The 4,150th asteroid, 4150 Starr and named for the Beatles’ Ringo Starr, was found in 1984. 2004 BL86 will likely be the highest-numbered asteroid any of us will ever see. How does 357,439 sound to you?

Some observers prefer a black on white map for tracking asteroids and deep sky objects. Click to view a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
Some observers prefer a black on white map for tracking asteroids and deep sky objects. Click to view a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

Observers in the Americas, Europe and Africa will have the best seats for viewing the asteroid, which will shine brightest between 7 p.m. and midnight CST from a comfortably high perch in Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. The half-moon will also be out but over in the western sky, so shouldn’t get in the way of seeing our speedy celeb.

Not only will 2004 BL86 pass near a few fairly bright stars but the Beehive Cluster (M44) will temporarily gain a new member between 11 p.m. and midnight as the asteroid buzzes across the well-known star cluster.

“Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, who’s retiring as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after 16 years in the position.

More detailed map showing the hourly position of the asteroid through central Cancer. Stars plotted to magnitude +9.5. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
More detailed map showing the hourly position of the asteroid through central Cancer. Stars plotted to magnitude +9.5. Click to get a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

To learn more about the space rock and acquire close-ups of its surface, NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will attempt to ping the asteroid with microwaves to create radar-generated images of the asteroid during the days surrounding its closest approach to Earth.

“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner of JPL, principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations of the asteroid. “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”

NASA's Deep Space Network will be watching during 2004 BL86's flyby Monday Jan. 26. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Deep Space Network will be watching during 2004 BL86’s flyby Monday Jan. 26. Credit: NASA

While 2004 BL86 will be brightest Monday night, that’s not the only time amateur astronomers might see it. It comes into view for southern hemisphere observers around magnitude +13 on Jan. 24 and leaves the scene at a similar brightness high in the northeastern sky in the northern hemisphere on the 29th. If you use a star-charting program like Starry Night, Guide, MegaStar and others, you can get updated orbital element packages HERE.  Just select your program and download the Observable Unusual Minor Planets file. Open it in your software and create maps for the entire apparition.

One last observing tip before you go your own way. Close asteroids will sometimes be a little bit off a particular track depending on your location. Not much but enough that I recommend you scan not just the single spot where you expect to see it but also nearby in the field of view. If you see a “star” on the move – that’s it.

As always, Dr. Gianluca Masi, Italian astrophysicist, will share his live coverage of the event beginning at 1:30 p.m. (19:30 UT) Jan. 26th.

Let us know if you see our not-so-little cosmic friend. Good luck!

We are not Alone: Government Sensors Shed New Light on Asteroid Hazards

How hazardous are the thousands and millions of asteroids that surround the third rock from the Sun – Earth? Since an asteroid impact represents a real risk to life and property, this is a question that has been begging for answers for decades. But now, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have received data from a variety of US Department of Defense assets and plotted a startling set of data spanning 20 years.

This latest compilation of data underscores how frequent some of these larger fireballs are, with the largest being the Chelyabinsk event on February 15, 2013 which injured thousands in Russia. The new data will improve our understanding of the frequency and presence of small and large asteroids that are hazards to populated areas anywhere on Earth.

On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. "It was an incredible feeling," Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)
On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. “It was an incredible feeling,” Jenniskens said. The meteorite which impacted in the Nubian Desert of Africa on Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. Meteorite 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk’s are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)

The data from “government sensors” – meaning “early warning” satellites to monitor missile launches (from potential enemies) as well as infrasound ground monitors – shows the distribution of bolide (fireball) events. The data first shows how uniformly distributed the events are around the world. This data is now released to the public and researchers for more detailed analysis.

The newest data released by the US government shows both how frequent bolides are and also how effectively the Earth’s atmosphere protects the surface. A subset of this data had been analyzed and reported by Dr. Peter Brown from the University of Western Ontario, Canada and his team in 2013 but included only 58 events. This new data set holds 556 events.

The newly released data also shows how the Earth’s atmosphere is a superior barrier that prevents small asteroids’ penetration and impact onto the Earth’s surface. Even the 20 meter (65 ft) Chelyabinsk asteroid exploded mid-air, dissipating the power of a nuclear blast 29.7 km (18.4 miles, 97,400 feet) above the surface. Otherwise, this asteroid could have obliterated much of a modern city; Chelyabinsk was also saved due to sheer luck – the asteroid entered at a shallow angle leading to its demise; more steeply, and it would have exploded much closer to the surface. While many do explode in the upper atmosphere, a broad strewn field of small fragments often occurs. In historical times, towns and villages have reported being pelted by such sprays of stones from the sky.

NASA and JPL emphasized that investment in early detection of asteroids has increased 10 fold in the last 5 years. Researchers such as Dr. Jenniskens at the SETI Institute has developed a network of all-sky cameras that have determined the orbits of over 175,000 meteors that burned up in the atmosphere. And the B612 Foundation has been the strongest advocate of discovering of all hazardous asteroids. B612, led by former astronauts Ed Lu and Rusty Schweikert has designed a space telescope called Sentinel which would find hazardous asteroids and help safeguard Earth for centuries into the future.

Speed is everything. While Chelyabinsk had just 1/10th the mass of Nimitz-class super carrier, it traveled 1000 times faster. Its kinetic energy on account of its speed was 20 to 30 times that released by the nuclear weapons used to end the war against Japan – about 320 to 480 kilotons of TNT. Briefly, asteroids are considered to be any space rock larger than 1 meter and those smaller are called meteoroids.

Two earlier surveys can be compared to this new data. One by Eugene Shoemaker in the 1960s and another by Dr. Brown. The initial work by Shoemaker using lunar crater counts and the more recent work of Dr. Brown’s group, utilizing sensors of the Department of Defense, determined estimates of the frequency of asteroid impacts (bolide) rates versus the size of the small bodies. Those two surveys differ by a factor of ten, that is, where Shoemaker’s shows frequencies on the order of 10s or 100s years, Brown’s is on the order of 100s and 1000s of years. The most recent data, which has adjusted Brown’s earlier work is now raising the frequency of hazardous events to that of the work of Shoemaker.

The work of Dr. Brown and co-investigators led to the following graph showing the frequency of collisions with the Earth of asteroids of various sizes. This plot from a Letter to Nature by P. Brown et al. used 58 bolides from data accumulated from 1994 to 2014 from government sensors. Brown and others will improve their analysis with this more detailed dataset. The plot shows that a Chelyabinsk type event can be expected approximately every 30 years though the uncertainty is high. The new data may reduce this uncertainty. Tungunska events which could destroy a metropolitan area the size of Washington DC occur less frequently – about once a century.

The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 - black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The full caption is at bottom. (Credit: P. Brown, Letter to Nature, 2013, Figure 3)
The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 – black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The full caption is at bottom. (Credit: P. Brown, Letter to Nature, 2013, Figure 3)

Asteroids come in all sizes. Smaller asteroids are much more common, larger ones less so. A common distribution seen in nature is represented by a bell curve or “normal” distribution. Fortunately the bigger asteroids number in the hundreds while the small “city busters” count in the 100s of thousands, if not millions. And fortunately, the Earth is small in proportion to the volume of space even just the space occupied by our Solar System. Additionally, 69% of the Earth’s surface is covered by Oceans. Humans huddle on only about 10% of the surface area of the Earth. This reduces the chances of any asteroid impact effecting a populated area by a factor of ten.

Altogether the risk from asteroids is very real as the Chelyabinsk event underscored. Since the time of Tugunska impact in Siberia in 1908, the human population has quadrupled. The number of cities of over 1 million has increased from 12 to 400. Realizing how many and how frequent these asteroid impacts occur plus the growth of the human population in the last one hundred years raises the urgency for a near-Earth asteroid discovery telescope such as B612’s Sentinel which could find all hazardous objects in less than 10 years whereas ground-based observations will take 100 years or more.

Reference:
New Map Shows Frequency of Small Asteroid Impacts, Provides Clues on Larger Asteroid Population

Full Caption of the included plot from LETTERS TO NATURE, The Chelyabinsk airburst : Implications for the Impact Hazard, P.G. Brown, et al.

The estimated cumulative flux of impactors at the Earth. The bolide impactor flux at Earth (Bolide flux 1994-2013 – black circles) based on ~20 years of global observations from US Government sensors and infrasound airwave data. Global coverage averages 80% among a total of 58 observed bolides with E > 1 kt and includes the Chelyabinsk Chelyabinsk bolide (far right black circle). This coverage correction is approximate and the bolide flux curve is likely a lower limit. The brown-coloured line represents an earlier powerlaw fit from a smaller dataset for bolides between 1 – 8 m in diameter15. Error bars represent counting statistics only. For comparison, we plot de-biased estimates of the near-Earth asteroid impact frequency based on all asteroid survey telescopic search data through mid- 2012 (green squares)8 and other earlier independently analysed telescopic datasets including NEAT discoveries (pink squares) and finally from the Spacewatch (blue squares) survey, where diameters are determined assuming an albedo of 0.1. Energy for telescopic data is computed assuming a mean bulk density of 3000 kgm-3 and average impact velocity of 20.3 kms-1. The intrinsic impact frequency for these telescopic data was found using an average probability of impact for NEAs as 2×10-9 per year for the entire population. Lunar crater counts converted to equivalent impactor flux and assuming a geometric albedo of 0.25 (grey solid line) are shown for comparison9, though we note that contamination by secondary craters and modern estimates of the NEA population which suggest lower albedos will tend to shift this curve to the right and down. Finally, we show estimated influx from global airwave measurements conducted from 1960-1974 which detected larger (5-20m) bolide impactors (upward red triangles) using an improved method for energy estimation compared to earlier interpretations of these same data.

Asteroid 2014 KH39 Zips Just 1.1 LD from Earth – Watch it LIVE June 3

Got any plans Tuesday? Good. Keep them but know this. That day around 3 p.m. CDT (20:00 UT) asteroid 2014 KH39 will silently zip by Earth at a distance of just 272,460 miles (438,480 km) or 1.14 LDs (lunar distance). Close as flybys go but not quite a record breaker. The hefty space rock will buzz across the constellation Cepheus at nearly 25,000 mph (11 km/sec) near the Little Dipper at the time.

Observers in central Europe and Africa will have  dark skies for the event, however at magnitude +17 the asteroid will be too faint to spot in amateur telescopes. No worries. The Virtual Telescope Project, run by astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, will be up and running with real-time images and live commentary during the flyby. The webcast begins at 2:45 p.m. CDT June 3.

2014 KH39 was discovered on May 24 by Richard Kowalski of the Catalina Sky Survey. (Kowalski is the same astronomer who discovered asteroid 2008 TC3, the small asteroid that impacted in Sudan in 2008). Further observations by the CSS and additional telescopes like Pan-STARRS 1 in Hawaii nailed down its orbit as an Earth-approacher with an approximate size of 72 feet (22 meters). That’s a tad larger than the 65-foot Chelyabinsk asteroid that exploded into thousands of small stony meteorites over Russia in Feb. 2013.

Diagram showing the orbit of 2014 KH39. Yellow shows the portion of its orbit above the plane of Earth’s orbit (grey disk); blue is below the plane. When farthest, the asteroid travels beyond Mars into the asteroid belt. It passes closest to Earth around 3 p.m. CDT June 3. Credit: IAU Minor Planet Center
Diagram showing the orbit of 2014 KH39. Yellow shows the portion of its orbit above the plane of Earth’s orbit (grey disk); blue is below the plane. When farthest, the asteroid travels beyond Mars into the asteroid belt. It passes closest to Earth around 3 p.m. CDT June 3. Credit: IAU Minor Planet Center

Since this asteroid will safely miss Earth we have nothing to fear from the flyby. I only report it here to point out how common near-Earth asteroids are and how remarkable it is that we can spot them at all. While we’re a long ways from finding and tracking all potentially hazardous asteroids, dedicated sky surveys turn up dozens of close-approaches every year. On the heels of 2014 KH39, the Earth-approaching asteroid 2014 HQ124 will pass 3.3 LDs away 5 days later on June 8. With a diameter estimated at more than 2,100 feet (650-m) it’s expected to become as bright as magnitude +13.7. Southern hemisphere observers might track it with 8-inch and larger telescopes as its speeds across Horologium and Eridanus the morning before closest approach.

The chart shows the cumulative known total of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) vs. time. The blue area shows all NEAs while the red shows those roughly 1 km and larger. Thanks to many surveys underway as well as help from space probes like the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE), discovery totals have been ramping up. Credit: NASA
The chart shows the cumulative known total of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) vs. time. The blue area shows all NEAs while the red shows those roughly 1 km and larger. Thanks to many ground-based surveys underway as well as space probes like the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), discovery totals have ramped up in recent years. There are probably millions of NEOs smaller than 140 meters waiting to be discovered. Credit: NASA

Perusing the current list of upcoming asteroid approaches, these two will be our closest visitors at least through early August. Near-Earth objects (NEOs) are comets and asteroids whose original orbits have been re-worked by the gravity of the planets – primarily Jupiter – into new orbits that allow them to approach relatively close to Earth. The ones we’re most concerned about are a subset called Potentially Hazardous Asteroids or PHAs, defined as objects that approach within 4.65 million miles (7.48 million km) of Earth and span 500 feet (150-m) across or larger. The key word here is ‘potential’. PHAs won’t necessarily hit the Earth – they only have the potential to do so over the vastness of time. On the bright side, PHAs make excellent targets for sampling missions.

Most near-Earth asteroids fall into three classes named after the first asteroid discovered in that class. Apollo and Aten asteroids cross Earth's orbit; Amors orbit just beyond Earth but cross Mars' orbit. Credit: Wikipedia
Most near-Earth asteroids fall into three classes named after the first asteroid discovered in that class. Apollo and Aten asteroids cross Earth’s orbit; Amors orbit just beyond Earth but cross Mars’ orbit. Credit: Wikipedia

As of May 30, 2014, 11,107 near-Earth objects have been discovered with 860 having a diameter of 1 km or larger. 1,481 of them have been further classified as potentially hazardous. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program estimates that over 90% of NEOs larger than 1 km (the most potentially lethal to the planet) have been discovered and they’re now working to find 90% of those larger than 459 feet (140 meters) across. Little by little we’re getting to better know the neighborhood.

The probability that either 2014 KH39 and 2014 HQ124 will hit Earth on this round is zero. Nor do we know of any asteroid in the near future on a collision course with the planet. Enjoy the day.

“Oddball” Asteroid is Really a Comet

It’s a case of mistaken identity: a near-Earth asteroid with a peculiar orbit turns out not to be an asteroid at all, but a comet… and not some Sun-dried burnt-out briquette either but an actual active comet containing rock and dust as well as CO2 and water ice. The discovery not only realizes the true nature of one particular NEO but could also shed new light on the origins of water here on Earth.

JPL Near-Earth Object database map of 3552 Don Quixote's orbit
JPL Near-Earth Object database map of 3552 Don Quixote’s orbit

Designated 3552 Don Quixote, the 19-km-wide object is the third largest near-Earth object — mostly rocky asteroids that orbit the Sun in the vicinity of Earth.

According to the IAU, an asteroid is coined a near-Earth object (NEO) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and within 0.3 AU of Earth’s orbit.

About 5 percent of near-Earth asteroids are thought to actually be dead comets. Today an international team including Joshua Emery, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee, have announced that Don Quixote is neither.

an asteroid is coined a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and  hence within 0.3 AU of the Earth's orbit.
An asteroid is coined a near-Earth object (NEO) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and within 0.3 AU of Earth’s orbit. (IAU)

“Don Quixote has always been recognized as an oddball,” said Emery. “Its orbit brings it close to Earth, but also takes it way out past Jupiter. Such a vast orbit is similar to a comet’s, not an asteroid’s, which tend to be more circular — so people thought it was one that had shed all its ice deposits.”

Read more: 3552 Don Quixote… Leaving Our Solar System?

Using the NASA/JPL Spitzer Space Telescope, the team — led by Michael Mommert of Northern Arizona University — reexamined images of Don Quixote from 2009 when it was at perihelion and found it had a coma and a faint tail.

Emery also reexamined images from 2004, when Quixote was at its farthest distance from the Sun, and determined that the surface is composed of silicate dust, which is similar to comet dust. He also determined that Don Quixote did not have a coma or tail at this distance, which is common for comets because they need the sun’s radiation to form the coma and the sun’s charged particles to form the tail.

The researchers also confirmed Don Quixote’s size and the low, comet-like reflectivity of its surface.

“The power of the Spitzer telescope allowed us to spot the coma and tail, which was not possible using optical telescopes on the ground,” said Emery. “We now think this body contains a lot of ice, including carbon dioxide and/or carbon monoxide ice, rather than just being rocky.”

This discovery implies that carbon dioxide and water ice might be present within other near-Earth asteroids and may also have implications for the origins of water on Earth, as comets are thought to be the source of at least some of it.

The amount of water on Don Quixote is estimated to be about 100 billion tons — roughly the same amount in Lake Tahoe.

“Our observations clearly show the presence of a coma and a tail which we identify as molecular line emission from CO2 and thermal emission from dust. Our discovery indicates that more NEOs may harbor volatiles than previously expected.”

– Mommert et al., “Cometary Activity in Near–Earth Asteroid (3552) Don Quixote “

The findings were presented Sept. 10 at the European Planetary Science Congress 2013 in London.

Source: University of Tennessee press release

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3552 Quixote isn’t the only asteroid found to exhibit comet-like behavior either — check out Elizabeth Howell’s recent article, “Asteroid vs. Comet: What the Heck is 3200 Phaethon?” for a look at another NEA with cometary aspirations.