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Asteroid the size of a large mountain to zoom past earth Tuesday

December 10, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • These four views of the (4179) Toutatis computer model show shallow craters, linear ridges and a deep topographic "neck" whose geologic origin is not known. It may have been sculpted by impacts into a single, coherent body, or this asteroid might actually consist of two separate objects that came together in a gentle collision. Toutatis is about 4.6 kilometers (3 miles) long.
These four views of the (4179) Toutatis computer model show shallow craters,… (Rendered by Eric DeJong…)

Asteroid 4179 Toutatis will zoom past earth this week. At its closest approach on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, it will come within 18 lunar distances of the planet.

That's 18 times the distance between the earth and the moon or 4.3 million miles.

That may not sound too close, but the asteroid's erratic orbit occasionally has it zipping by a little too close for comfort. That's why the asteroid has been designated "potentially hazardous."  In 2004 for example, the asteroid's orbit took it even closer to the earth--just about four lunar distances.

Toutatis passes by earth every four years. Sky and Telescope describes it as "an irregular double lump measuring just 2.8 × 1.5 × 1.2 miles (4.5 × 2.4 × 1.9 km) in size — a largish mountain."

It was first seen in 1934, and then lost for decades. It was re-discovered by Christian Pollas in 1989. He gave it the name Toutatis, after the Gaulish God featured prominently in the French animated series "Les aventures d'Asterix." Thes series tells the stories of two heroes living in 50 B.C. who fear nothing but the sky falling on their heads.

"Since this object is the Apollo object with the smallest inclination known, it is a good candidate to fall on our heads one of these days..." Pollas wrote

Despite the ominous name, Toutatis is not expected to collide with earth for at least 600 more years.

If you're interested in seeing this asteroid for yourself you will need either a telescope, or a strong pair of binoculars, and a good sky map.  You can also watch it on your computer or smartphone via the Slooh Space Camera.

Slooh will be tracking the asteroid from its telescopes on the Canary Islands and from Arizona and streaming the footage live. The free show starts at 12 p.m. PST on Tuesday.

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