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Three-mile long Toutatis asteroid to zip past Earth this week

December 11, 2012|By Deborah Netburn

Grab your telescope. The asteroid known as Toutatis will make its closest approach to Earth tonight.

From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, the 3-mile long asteroid will be about 18 times the distance of the moon from the Earth. 

And if you miss it Tuesday night, don't worry. The asteroid should be visible if you have the right conditions, the right telescope and a good star chart -- through the end of the week. 

Even at its closest approach you won't be able to see Toutatis with the naked eye. You'll need a small telescope. Of course, even if you find it, it will still appear as a small point of light moving across the night sky.

To see what this asteroid really looks like, you'd need something really, really big, such as the Goldstone Radar, which looks like a whopping satellite dish 230 feet across.

Scientists who work at the Goldstone facility near Barstow have been tracking Toutatis since Dec. 4 and posting images of the asteroid on the Internet. The images are a little fuzzy, but they give you a sense of the asteroid's oblong shape and its lumpy topography. 

Lance Benner, a Jet Propulsion Laboratoryresearch scientist, said the asteroid is rotating very slowly and that at 3 miles long it is one of the bigger objects that have come within 18 lunar distances of the Earth. But he wouldn't consider it humongous or gigantic.

Since Toutatis' erratic orbit takes it by Earth once every four years, scientists have been able to study it pretty closely since it was rediscovered (and named) in 1989. 

As for the all-important question of whether Toutatis' orbit will ever put it on a collision path with Earth, Benner said it is unlikely.

"There is no risk of it colliding with Earth" for hundreds of years, he said. But Benner can't predict hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

Still, he is not worried that Toutatis will ever collide with Earth.

"Almost 9,400 asteroids have been found so far, and none of them have a significant chance of hitting us," he said. "It's the ones we haven't found yet that are of greater concern."

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