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NASA prepares for the closest asteroid encounter in history

NASA astronomers are gearing up for what is expected to be a historic encounter with a massive asteroid this week.

The massive asteroid, dubbed 2012 DA14, is estimated to be 150 feet (45 meters) across and it is currently slated to swing by Earth on February 15 with little room to spare. Astronomers project the asteroid will come as close at 17,000 miles (27,358 kilometers) to the surface of Earth — the closest flyby in modern history.

While the asteroid will bypass Earth with no chance of an impact, a number of astronomers are already preparing to track the latest encounter with bated breath. The asteroid, which will swing by Earth again in 2040, still holds a remote possibility of impact later in the century. Earth’s gravitational field could influence the asteroid enough that it increases the likelihood of an impact down the road, according to astronomers. As for now, astronomers put the chance of an impact from 2012 DA14 at 0.031 percent — a figure that will be refined as the asteroid approaches Earth.

With the asteroid projected to come within less than 20,000 miles of Earth, astronomers have raised the possibility of a threat posed to orbiting satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). While refined projections place the asteroid well within the region occupied by satellites  NASA scientists do not expect it to collide with low-Earth satellites and the ISS.

Silver Lining?

While much of the focus has been on the asteroid’s ability to create havoc on Earth, the flyby does have a major silver lining. NASA has announced plans that it will work with other international space agencies to collect information on the space rock as it passes Earth.  The latest flyby for the asteroid could provide valuable data for NASA and private space companies hoping to begin mining asteroids in the near future. Data collected from 2012 DA14 could provide astronomers with a better picture of the resources trapped in asteroids zooming through our cosmic backyard.

In addition, astronomers may actually find themselves collecting data on how life came to evolve in the solar system. Asteroids are now known to hold, in some cases, vast supplies of water. A recently discovered asteroid originating on the surface of Mars is thought to hold one of the greatest concentrations of water ever discovered in solar system. It remains unclear whether 2012 DA14 carries any water, but astronomers are preparing to capture data that will reveal the space rock’s exact composition.

How Many Asteroids?

Asteroid  2012 DA14 is the latest asteroid to make a pass by Earth. Earth has already had one close encounter this year with asteroid Apophis (2004 MN4). The massive asteroid, which  in 2004 gave had a 2.7 percent chance of impacting Earth in April 2029, made one of its closest approaches in January of this year. Later this year, amateur astronomers will be treated to an amazing light show as comet ISON swings by. The comet is expected to Comet ISON will come within 800,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of our sun’s surface, an event that will likely create one of the brightest events in the sky.

That said, the number of NEOs is creating some concern within the astronomy community. A number of astronomers have recently called for increased funding of programs that can detect massive asteroids and objects that have a chance of impacting Earth. According to a recent report, at the current rate of detection, it will take astronomers 15 more years to discover every NEO and an additional 100 or so years to collect data on orbits and composition.

What If It Did Impact Earth?

Like the moon, Earth is pocketed with craters, suggesting such collisions happen somewhat frequently. According to NASA, impacts on the scale of 2012 DA14 occur once every 1,200 to 1,500 years. If 2012 DA14 were to collide with Earth, NASA estimates the impact could amount to the energy produced during the Tunguska Impact in Siberia in 1908. The strange asteroid impact is largely thought to have unleashed the equivalent of 185 Hiroshima bombs, resulting in 800 square miles of forest being flattened.

Amateur Astronomers. 

The asteroid’s speed will present challenges for amateur astronomers hoping to capture a glimpse of the massive space rock. Astronomers will have to be located in Eastern Europe, Asia or Australia for the best telescope-aided view, according to NASA, and it will not be visible to the naked eye.

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