Asteroid 2012 DA14 set to skim past Earth

The Earth will dodge a cosmic bullet this week when a 50-meter wide asteroid skims past our planet. The flyby, by a space rock labelled 2012 DA14, is the closest near-miss ever predicted in advance for an object so large.

An artists's impression of an asteroid like 2012 DA14 making a close pass of the Earth
An artists’s impression of an asteroid like 2012 DA14 making a close pass of the Earth. Credit: ESA/NASA

The asteroid will come so close on Friday, 15 February, that it flies 27,650 kilometers (17,150 miles) above the Earth, coming between us and TV and communications satellites in their high, geosynchronous orbits.

The asteroid’s path will carry it from the far southern part of the sky past the constellation of Crux, the Southern Cross, through Virgo and into the Plough.

It will give stargazers in the UK and across Europe a treat by becoming visible in binoculars as it races across the sky against the starry background at 7.82 kilometers (4.8 miles) per second.

Robin Scagell, vice president of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “It will be quite tricky to see because you will need to know the sky quite well so that you look at the right spot. But it’ll be a unique chance to see such a close asteroid. I’ve never witnessed anything like it in many years of skywatching.”

Robin has produced a useful guide for the Society for Popular Astronomy on how to observe the close approach. The asteroid was discovered in February last year by the La Sagra Sky Survey in Spain.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the US and NASA space telescopes will closely monitor the asteroid during its flyby to check its spin. This will help them calculate its orbit better for the future.

If asteroid DA14 were to hit a city it could cause devastation because the energy from its speed is converted into a huge explosion on impact, blasting a crater much bigger than the rock itself. However, there is absolutely no danger of an impact. NASA experts have precisely calculated DA14’s orbit to show it will not hit Earth.

An asteroid of a similar size blasted the famous Barringer Meteor Crater out of the ground in Arizona around 50,000 years ago. Another similar-sized but more crumbly object exploded in the air over a remote region of Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, flattening forests for hundreds of square miles around.

The event is a timely reminder that Solar System can be like a cosmic shooting gallery. Most of the hundreds of thousands of asteroids circle the Sun between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.

But more than a thousand are known which cross the Earth’s orbit. Nearly 900 of these so-called Potentially Hazardous Objects are around 500 ft wide, which is big enough to destroy a city or cause a tsunami if it hit the sea.


A NASA video about the close approach of 2012 DA14
Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, said: “This is a record-setting close approach. Since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s, we’ve never seen an object this big get so close to Earth.” He added: “2012 DA14 will definitely not hit Earth. The orbit of the asteroid is known well enough to rule out an impact.”

Near-Earth asteroids like this one are of interest to the new space mining companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. DA144 itself, which is thought to have a mass of around 130,000 metric tons, is in too steep an orbit for these prospectors to chase. Otherwise its minerals that could provide water, rocket fuel and precious metals could be worth up to $195 billion.

Get free Skymania news updates by email

Sign up for alerts to our latest reports. No spam ever - we promise!

You might also enjoy these posts
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will set the controls for the heart of the Sun NASA is revealing more about a daring mission to send a space probe flying closer to the Sun than ever before.
Astronomers capture flash from new asteroid impact on Jupiter Amateur astronomers have filmed a flare on Jupiter, thought to be caused by an asteroid or other cosmic missile.
NASA’s Juno probe captures Jupiter as we have never seen it before NASA’s Juno space probe has sent back remarkable new pictures of giant planet Jupiter, including a look down onto its stormy polar regions.
Cash-strapped NASA scraps mission to bring home an asteroid NASA has been forced to scrap a deep space mission to redirect a chunk of asteroid into a new orbit around the Moon.
See asteroid Vesta shining at its best Now is a great time to see asteroid Vesta which is usually the brightest of the minor planets. Here is how to observe and photograph Vesta.

By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.