Small asteroid grazes the Earth

An amateur astronomer has captured the moment a small asteroid skimmed past the Earth yesterday, coming to within 46,000 km (29,000 miles) of us. Patrick Wiggins, of Utah, recorded the cosmic missile streaking among the stars using a digital camera attached to his backyard telescope.

A frame shows the asteroid as stars trail

The asteroid, 2010 TD54, which was only detected at the weekend, was estimated to be about 7.3 meters wide (eight yards wide) – bigger than a London red double-decker bus.

NASA experts had said there was only a one in a million chance of it hitting the Earth and said it would have burned up in a shower of brilliant fireballs if it had done so. Two years ago, a similar small body scattered meteorites across a remote part of Sudan.

Patrick, who is one of NASA’s volunteer solar system ambassadors, had to keep his Celestron 14-in telescope turning to track the asteroid as it sped at nearly 17.37km a second (11 miles) to an eighth the distance of the Moon from the Earth. You can view a sequence showing the asteroid speeding against the star trails here. It was produced from 23 five -econd exposures shot between 09:01:27 and 09:04:39 UT.

He said: “The target was rotating quickly during both sequences which is ‘reflected’ (pun intended) by its rapidly changing brightness.” Former planetarium operator Patrick now works part time with the University of Utah’s Physics Department in Salt Lake City.

Asteroid 2010 TD54 was discovered by automatic monitoring carried out by the Spacewatch II telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, part of the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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