Asteroid to pass close to Earth; a post-Valentine’s Day close encounter

credit: NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office
credit: NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program Office

Next Friday afternoon, the Earth will have a close encounter with object 2012 DA 14, an asteroid a little less than half a football field in diameter. This will be the closest call with an asteroid yet in 2013, as the object will hurtle by about 17,000 miles from the Earth’s surface.

Timothy Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the asteroid was discovered last year by a team of using a Spanish telescope to track near-Earth objects that could pose a threat to satellites. Spahr, at his office in Cambridge, receives the reports for all asteroids that are discovered, staying alert for ones that could smash into the Earth in the short-term, on the order of days or weeks.

“This one is a close approach for a known object this size—the biggest, closest approach [ever] for something this size,” Spahr said. He added, however, that although it was interesting, there was nothing to worry about.

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Asteroids like this one, Spahr said, take a little less than a year to complete an orbit. Since the asteroid’s round trip takes a similar—but not exactly the same—amount of time it takes for the Earth to make its way around the sun, that means that the objects often won’t be seen for a long time. Their orbit will be out of sync with the Earth’s, but then for a decade or so they will make a close pass on an annual basis.

According to NASA, this will be the asteroid’s closest approach for at least 30 years.

Telescopes and radar will be trained on the asteroid’s approach to learn more about it. Scientists will gather data that will help them precisely calculate and predict its orbit. Spahr said he spoke to the head of the team that discovered the asteroid a few days ago, and although they are eager to name it, they will have to wait—probably for at least a year—because there are strict rules about when objects get their names. Asteroids need to have their orbits “sufficiently well determined,” he said, before they can get an official name.

Close encounters like this one can be a teachable moment—something to spread a little rational thinking in the face of so many movies that have depicted asteroids that threaten to end life as we know it. The asteroid will pass by at 2:25 p.m. Eastern time on Feb. 15, and in parts of the world where it is night, it will be visible through a backyard telescope.

“I sleep at night, and you should, too,” Spahr said. “I’m not sitting around panicking we’re going to die next week. I’m not worried about this.”