On Friday, February 15, astronomers will get an unusually good look at a near-Earth asteroid called 2012 DA14. It will be the first time a known object of this size will come this close to Earth—a mere 8 percent the distance between us and our moon.
The asteroid, which measures 150 feet across, was first spotted by astronomers when it zoomed by Earth this time last year. This asteroid’s fly-bys occur about once a year since its orbit around the sun is very similar to our own.
Apophis is a big name in the world of asteroids, and on Wednesday the famed space object will be making an appearance for astronomers across the globe.
A flurry of apocalyptic hoopla was generated
in 2004 when astronomers found an asteroid that looked like it may be headed for Earth. Apophis measures almost 1000 feet across, and if it were to hit Earth, the fateful collision would occur on Friday the 13th, in April of 2029. So astronomers set out to take more pictures of the asteroid’s orbit and better estimate the chances of a collision. As a clearer picture of its orbit emerged, the odds went from 1 in 300, to 1 in 45, to zero. But that doesn’t mean the threat is gone.
So far our galactic adventures have included landing men on the moon, taking pretty pictures of Saturn, and roaming the surface of Mars. So what’s next on NASA’s to-do list? Perhaps snagging an asteroid to keep in our own backyard.
Researchers from the Keck Institute for Space Studies proposed a plan [pdf] in April to bring an asteroid into the moon’s orbit so astronauts can study it up close. How big an asteroid are we talking? Researchers said the sweet spot would be right around 500 tons and 20 feet in diameter—big enough to locate but small enough to transport. After finding such an asteroid, researchers want to send a robotic spacecraft to bag and drag the asteroid into the moon’s orbit. The asteroid would in effect become the moon’s own mini moon. The round-trip journey could take up to a decade, which would give NASA enough time to set up a manned mission to the asteroid to study it up close and personal. So far NASA has not turned the proposal down.
Seven years after launch, Japan’s Hayabusa researchers can finally celebrate their success: The little asteroid probe has, really and truly, succeeded at its mission. Researchers announced that the probe’s payload capsule, retrieved in June, contains dust from the asteroid Itokawa that the probe visited in 2005.
Not only did it travel four billion miles with only one rest stop (becoming the first spacecraft to land on and lift away from an asteroid!), it also collected a sample of the asteroid dust and shuttled it back to earth three years after its scheduled landing date. It accomplished all this despite an instrument malfunction during the crucial sample collection maneuver, and serious engine trouble throughout the mission.
After analyzing more than 1,500 particles using scanning electron microscopes, researchers have announced that almost all of the specks of rock and dust (pictured here in the capsule) are of extraterrestrial origin. That’s a relief to scientists who feared that the dust might be earthly contaminants.