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Congrats, Earthlings, you're safe ... for now

February 04, 2013|By Joseph Serna
  • Diagram depicting the passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15.
Diagram depicting the passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon… (P. Chodas / NASA/JPL )

Mayan apocalypse? Avoided. Y2K anarchy? Suppressed. Gigantic asteroid hurled by the sun’s gravity toward Earth? Well …

Close but no cigar. Better go to Vegas, Earthlings, you’re on a winning streak of avoiding disaster.

In what NASA officials are calling the closest near-Earth fly-by in at least a generation, Asteroid 2012 DA14, is expected to buzz by our blue marble on Feb. 15. The 150-foot space rock will cross from south to north in the afternoon, coming within 22,200 miles of Earth. That’s closer than communication and GPS satellites in geostationary orbit.

Despite its close proximity, NASA says there’s nothing for anyone to worry about. Asteroids this size come close to Earth every 40 years, officials said. In fact, this asteroid passed by Earth last year — although it was much farther away. Scientists spotted it in February and have been tracking its orbit around the sun ever since.

If you want to see it, buy a pair of binoculars and a plane ticket, because this hunk of metal, minerals and ice won’t be easy to spot from your backyard.

NASA officials say onlookers either need a small telescope or binoculars to see its distant glow and should probably be in Indonesia, Eastern Europe, Asia or Australia to have a shot. NASA’s telescope in the Mojave Desert seems to be one of the few places in the continental United States where it could be visible as it returns to the cold, quiet darkness of interstellar orbiting.

The asteroid is expected to come back to our neck of the planetary woods next year, but it won’t be this close. Asteroids the size of DA14 smash into the planet only once in about every 1,200 years or so, NASA spokesman David Agle said.

The last time that happened was in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia. The incident, known ominously as the Tunguska Event, flattened 750 miles of snow-covered forest when it smashed into Earth. An asteroid that size releases about 2.5 megatons of energy into the atmosphere, causing regional devastation, Agle said.

Since that just happened about 100 years ago, and NASA recently ruled out worrying about an even larger asteroid that will come near the planet in 2036, it looks like Earth’s hot streak will continue.

Return to Science Now blog.

Twitter: @josephserna

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