On February 15, 2013, a small asteroid, “2012 DA14” is expected to fly past the Earth. Source: NASA

On February 15, 2013, a small asteroid named “2012 DA14” is expected to fly past the Earth. Source: NASA

On February 15, 2013, a small asteroid named “2012 DA14” is expected to fly past the Earth. The asteroid weighs approximately 130,000 metric tons, has a rough diameter of 45 meters, and has a speed eight times that of a high-powered rifle. If it were to collide with the Earth, it would release 2.5 megatons of blast energy, the equivalent of roughly 2 United States B83 nuclear warheads (1).

2012 DA14 will fly within approximately 3.5 (17,200 miles) Earth radii of the earth’s equator. This pathway actually leads the asteroid closer to the Earth than many geosynchronous satellites—up to 5000 miles closer (2).

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near Earth Object project, commented that the asteroid impacting either the Earth or any of the satellites is impossible (1, 2). Various astronomers have predicted the orbit of the asteroid so closely that they can guarantee a complete lack of danger (2).

The asteroid, far from presenting a danger, presents a relatively rare opportunity for further investigation. NASA scientists estimate that of the roughly 500,000 asteroids of this size that cross the Earth’s path every year, one may fly by roughly every 40 years, while collision occurs likely only once every 1,200 years (1).

For amateur stargazers, it will be visible from Eastern Europe, Australia, and Asia with binoculars or a medium-powered telescope (1). Astronomers expect to learn more of the asteroid’s path, spin, surface features, and composition (2).

This is the first time that scientists have been able to predict the approach of this kind of dangerous cosmic object (1). La Sagra Observatory in southern Spain discovered the approach of the asteroid with the aid of updates to a high-velocity-tracking telescope (3, 4).

A Shoemaker Near Earth Object (NEO) grant from Planetary Society funded the project (4). Bill Nye, Chief Executive Officer of the Planetary Society, commented that the asteroid warns of potential impacts and the importance of defending against such impacts (4). Besides the 2012 DA14, the project has discovered 10 other NEOs, as well as a new comet.

Asteroids historically have caused significant harm to both the Earth’s surface and its life. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley have linked the six-mile-wide asteroid that struck the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago to the extinction of the dinosaurs (1). In addition, 2012 DA14 is similar to object that caused the Tunguska Event of 1908, which leveled hundreds of square miles of Siberian land (2).

 

References:

1. R. L. Hotz, Asteroid to Narrowly Miss Earth Next Week (08 February 2013). Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324906004578291770838215856.htm (08 February 2013).

2. M. Kramer, Asteroid Flyby Next Week One for the Recond Books, NASA says (07 February 2013). Available at http://www.space.com/19686-asteroid-2012-da14-earth-flyby-nasa.html (08 February 2013).

3. P. Chodas et al., Near-Earth Asteroid DA14 to Miss Earth on February 15, 2013 (6 March 2012). Available at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news174.html (08 February 2013).

4. M. Kaplan, Asteroid 2012 DA14 Discovery Enabled by Planetary Society Grant (03 March 2012). Available at http://www.planetary.org/press-room/releases/2012/0315_Asteroid_2012_DA14_Discovery_Enabled_by.html (08 February 2013).