Look at that Asteroid
A big space rock will soon come so close to Earth
that sky watchers can see it through binoculars.
Astronomers discovered the nearby asteroid, named 2002 NY40--not to be confused with better-known 2002 NT7--on July 14th. It measures about 800 meters across, and follows an orbit that ranges from the asteroid belt to the inner solar system. On August 18th, the asteroid will glide past our planet only 1.3 times farther away than the Moon.
Above: A computer simulated view of our planet from a passing near-Earth asteroid. [more]
2002 NY40 is different. We know the asteroid is coming, and astronomers have time to prepare.
One team of observers led by Mike Nolan at the giant Arecibo radar in Puerto Rico will "ping" 2002 NY40 with radio waves as it approaches Earth. Such data result in impressive 3D maps of asteroids, which have often surprised astronomers with their weird shapes. Some prove to be binary systems (one space rock orbiting another) and one even looks like a dog bone.
"Radar data will also improve our knowledge of the asteroid's orbit," adds Jon Giorgini, a member of the radar team from JPL. "At present, we know there's little risk of a collision with 2002 NY40 for decades. When the Arecibo radar measurements are done, the orbit uncertainties should shrink by more than a factor of 200. We'll be able to extrapolate the asteroid's motion hundreds of years into the past and into the future, too."
Left: Earth's biggest radar: the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. [more]
2002 NY40 is faint now. It shines by reflected sunlight like a 17th magnitude star. As it nears Earth, however, the space rock will brighten, soaring to 9th magnitude on August 18th. That's about 16 times dimmer than the dimmest star you can see without a telescope. But as asteroids go, it's very bright.
"Asteroids are hard to see," explains Yeomans, "because they're mostly black like charcoal. The most common ones--carbon-rich C-type asteroids--reflect only 3% to 5% of the light that hits them. Metallic asteroids, which are somewhat rare, reflect more: 10% to 15%."
"We don't know yet what this asteroid is made of," he continued, "but we'll have a much better idea by the end of August." Astronomers using ground-based telescopes will have little trouble recording the asteroid's spectrum and thus its composition.
On the date of closest approach, the asteroid will sail past Vega, the brightest star in the evening summer sky. Sky watchers with powerful binoculars or small telescopes can see it--a speck of light moving 8 degrees per hour. (Note: The flyby will be visible mostly from Earth's northern hemisphere; this is not a good opportunity for southern sky watchers. North Americans can see it best after sunset on Aug. 17th; Europeans should look during the hours before dawn on Aug. 18th.)
Above: 2002 NY40's trajectory through the night sky on August 18, 2002. Red dots denote the position of the asteroid during the hours near closest approach. "UT" means Universal Time. You can also view maps labeled withor . See also this ephemeris from JPL.
Something extraordinary will happen hours after 2002 NY40 passes Earth: the space rock will quickly fade.
Asteroids, like moons and planets, have phases. The sunlit side of 2002 NY40 is facing Earth now. It's full, like a full Moon. On August 18th, the asteroid will cross Earth's orbit on its way toward the Sun. Then the phase of the asteroid will change--from full to gibbous to half.... finally the night side will turn to face Earth. The asteroid will grow dark, like a new Moon.
It's not every day you can peer through binoculars and see a near-Earth asteroid--and then see it disappear. But 2002 NY40 has a lot to offer.
Right: An artists' concept of a space probe landing on a large asteroid. Created by John Frassanito & Associates, Inc.
"Don't forget," adds Yeomans, "most asteroids pose no threat to Earth. But they do contain valuable metals, minerals and even water that we might tap in the future." When such asteroids come close (but not too close!) we have relatively easy access to them--both to study and, one day perhaps, to visit.
Or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, asteroids (like 2002 NY40) that do not hit us, make us stronger.
Editor's Note: 2002 NY40 is not the same asteroid that made worldwide headlines last week. That was 2002 NT7--an object that might come close to Earth in 2019.more information
Near-Earth Objects -- (JPL) up-to-date information about asteroids from NASA's Near-Earth Object program office.
Caveat Impactor -- (Science@NASA) An asteroid with almost no chance of hitting Earth made big headlines this week.
Asteroid Radar Research -- (JPL) astronomers can learn a great deal about asteroids by pinging them with radio waves.
Asteroid & Comet Impact Hazards -- (NASA Ames) more news and information
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