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. Just yesterday, it was announced that, come tomorrow, Earth is going to have a close encounter with an asteroid that, literally, avoided detection until almost the last minute.
Fortunately, though, the asteroid will pass Earth, but only with about 60,000 miles (about one quarter the distance to the Moon) to spare.
Asteroid 2012 TC4 is estimated to be about 50 feet wide. The good news is that, even at this size estimate, 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, it is events like these, asteroids passing Earth within only days of discovery, that reinforce the need to be vigilant in scanning the skies.
With the close approach, scientists are training their telescopes on the asteroid, hoping to use radar to image the wayward space rock to better determine its shape and size.
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 TC4.
Now, as the asteroid will be coming so close to Earth: the big question many amateur astronomers are asking themselves is this: will I be able to see it?
Fortunately for us in the United States, the asteroid will be making its closest approach at 11:57pm EDT tonight, which means that it will be dark here when closest approach happens. Unfortunately, while it’s close, 2012 TC4 is also small and will shine very dimly (14th magnitude), making it a challenge (but possible) even with a telescope.
A better bet for anyone wanting to watch will be the Virtual Telescope’s live video feed.
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