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Asteroid set to narrowly miss earth will be visible tonight


An asteroid, code-named 2004 BL86, is set to narrowly pass by earth today. Here Akash Beri tells us more.

An asteroid is set to ‘narrowly’ miss Earth on 26th January, and won’t be seen again for another 200 years.

Amateur and professional stargazers alike are preparing for the fly-past of an asteroid, which will narrowly avoid our planet.

The space rock, code-named 2004 BL86, is predicted to reach a point approximately 745,000 miles from Earth, or three times the distance to the Moon.

Travelling at an estimated 35,000 miles an hour (70 times faster than a Boeing 747), the asteroid is relatively close in astronomical terms, but it will not make contact with Earth.

Dr Don Yeomans, retiring head of the US space agency NASA’s Near-Earth Object Programme, said: “it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.”

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Programme, also known as ‘Spaceguard’, examines space for potentially dangerous objects that might pose a risk.

An image issued by NASA of a graphic showing the predicted trajectory of asteroid 2004 BL86 - Image: The Telegraph
An image issued by NASA of a graphic showing the predicted trajectory of asteroid 2004 BL86 – Image: The Telegraph

‘BL86’ was originally discovered in 2004, by astronomers in the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research survey telescope in New Mexico, USA.

Since then, astronomers have prepared for the first and last glimpse of the asteroid for at least another 200 years, according to Dr Don Yeomans.

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and Deep Space Network antennae at Goldstone, California and will be used to obtain science data and radar-generated images of the asteroid.

Dr Lance Benner, leading the radar observations, said: “When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images…we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”

However, asteroids are not a recently exposed phenomenon. The first asteroid ‘Ceres’ was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, which at the time was thought to be a planet.

Similar discoveries led to Sir William Herschel coining the word ‘asteroid’ to describe these rocks in space, ranging from 20 feet across to 583 miles across.

Simply put, both asteroids and comets are ‘leftovers’ from the formation of our Solar System, 4.5 billion years ago.

Since then, astrophysicists have learned that the majority of asteroids orbit within an ‘asteroid belt’ between Mars and Jupiter, but Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) have orbits that pass close to Earth, and could one day collide.

In fact, 65 million years ago, an asteroid 6.2 miles across impacted the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico leaving a crater 110 miles wide and 12 miles deep.

The estimated energy equivalent was 100 teratons of TNT, 2 million times more powerful than the Tsar Bomb, the largest ever man-made explosive.

Scientists conclude the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was triggered by this event, with dust thrown into the atmosphere causing global cooling and affecting photosynthesis.

More recently, an asteroid in 1908 exploded in the air above Tunguska, Siberia which was heard over 1000 miles away.

The lack of a crater puzzled researchers for decades, and Dr. Don Yeomans has said: “It is the only entry of a large meteoroid we have in the modern era with first-hand accounts”.

Scientists also recognise that both asteroids and comets likely delivered water and carbon-based molecules to Earth – the essential building blocks of life itself.

This formed a key part of the Rosetta Mission, which made history in 2014 by placing a probe on a comet, despite its rocky landing.

Using an instrument called ROSINA, researchers found water molecules on the comet, far denser than water on Earth. This might suggest that Earth’s water came from asteroids rather than comets.

Dr Edward Bloomer, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, hopes that amateur astronomers will therefore take this opportunity to gaze upon the hurtling asteroid.

He said: “By nightfall on the 26th, the sun will be below the horizon and out of the way, giving you a good chance to look at asteroid…The coast is a good place to go, as you are away from external sources of light.”

This asteroid will be the closest any comes to Earth until the predicted fly-past of another rock, 1999 AN10, on August 7, 2027.

Estimated at about 0.6 miles across, it could approach as close as 19,000 miles.

Akash Beri

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