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Sunday, February 10

A close encounter

On Friday a small asteroid, about 50 metres across, will pass close to the Earth. This Near Earth Object is one of many that share similar orbits to the Earth and occasionally come close to our planet. On this occasion the orbit is very well known, allowing astronomers to confirm that there is NO CHANCE the object will hit the Earth. It will however come closer than the geostationary satellites that orbit around 20,000 miles above the Earth providing telecommunications services.

The asteroid known as 2012 DA14, will make closest approach of an asteroid of this size since astronomers have been closely tracking and measuring such objects. This will allow detailed measurement and mapping of the object by professional astronomers. SPACE.COM have a nice summary graphic of the event here.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 size compared to space shuttle. Image Credit: NASA

So, given that it is such a close flyby, will amateur astronomers be able to see it? Well in theory, yes, it will reach magnitude 8, which is well within the reach of most amateur telescopes. However, as the asteroid will be approaching at around 5 miles per second, it will be moving very fast against the background stars and will be difficult to find and track. Experience amateurs will be trying to image it, and we can look forward to some interesting images over the weekend. If you want to try Sky and Telescope have a finder chart and details here. A number of websites are also planning to broadcast the event via live video including the Clay Centre Observatory in Massachusetts, USA.

More information on the asteroid and its approach can be found in these videos from NASA ScienceCast and The Planetary Society.

Update: Another excellent summary of this event from Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy.


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