For people who are even slightly familiar with the solar system, it is common knowledge that Earth is in the middle of a cosmic shooting gallery with millions upon millions of asteroids constantly hurtling through the solar system at almost unimaginable speeds. Come the middle of next month, Earth is going to have a record-settingly close encounter with a huge asteroid.
Fortunately, though, the asteroid, dubbed 2012 DA 14, will pass Earth, but only with about 17,000 miles to spare. While other asteroids have come closer, earth has never been buzzed so close by one so big.
Asteroid 2012 DA 14 is estimated to be about 150 feet across. Now, while not overly huge as some asteroids are hundreds of miles across, one this size is, according to experts, a once every 6 years event, so it is still far bigger than most. The good news is that, even at the largest estimate of 150 feet, the asteroid would, in all probability, burn up on descent through Earth’s protective atmosphere, resulting in nothing more than a monster fireball and, perhaps, a few scattered meteorite fragments scattered across the ground. Needless to say, such an asteroid would not do any real damage unless it were to hit someone or someone’s property. For astronomers at NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, such events cause great excitement as space rocks this big rarely come so close, making for a golden research opportunity.
As for asteroids themselves, most lie in the Main Asteroid Belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. In the Early solar system, dust was everywhere. In time, dust particles started colliding and clumping together. As the groups of gravitationally-bound space debris got bigger and bigger, they attracted most of the loose space debris in the solar system to form the planets. However, for reasons unknown, the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter never coalesced into a planet, thus resulting in the Asteroid Belt. Occasionally, asteroids collide, sending both out of the belt and flying on random trajectories through space, which is almost certainly what happened with 2012 DA 14.
Now, as the asteroid will be coming so close to Earth: the big question many astronomers are asking themselves is this: will I be able to see it?
Short answer: maybe.
The asteroid will be making its closest approach on February 15, which means that it will be at its brightest then. According to NASA, it could reach 8th magnitude, an easy target for telescopes. Problem: the asteroid will be so close that it will be moving through about a degree of sky (twice the Full Moon width) every minute, making it a dim, moving target.
Planning to do some sky watching in the Cleveland area? Well be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock as the close approach date nears. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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