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Asteroid 2012 DA14: Long Gone from Earth

Size of 2012 DA14. Credit: Michael Carroll (used with permission)

That close flyby of Earth by a space rock should provide new data critical to understanding the potential hazards that other asteroids could pose if they collide with the Earth.

Shortly after the destructive Russian fireball event on February 15, asteroid 2012 DA14 passed ultra-close to the Earth.

This encounter never presented any danger, but astronomers were eager to observe the event.

One such team was led by Nicholas Moskovitz of MIT, observing the asteroid with a number of telescopes, including the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Busy analyzing data

“Flybys like this, particularly for objects smaller than 2012 DA14, are not uncommon. This one was special because we knew about it well in advance so that observations could be planned to look at how asteroids are affected by the Earth’s gravity when they come so close,” Moskovitz said in a National Optical Astronomy Observatory press statement.

The team of international experts is busy analyzing their data to measure any changes in the rotation rate of the asteroid after its close encounter with the Earth.

Measuring the rotation rate of the asteroid in this way allows the team to test models that predict how the Earth’s gravity can affect close-passing asteroids.

This will lead to a better understanding of whether objects like 2012 DA14 are rubble piles or single solid rocks.

Observing campaigns

2012 DA14 is not expected to visit the vicinity of the Earth any time for at least the next century.

But as was seen with the impact in Russia on the same day as the flyby, there are many thousands of near-Earth asteroids out there that can be dangerous.

Observing campaigns using facilities around the world allow scientists to have a much better understanding of the properties of near-Earth asteroids, and their potential for making trouble should they get too close!

Take a look at a video of the flyby – the asteroid is seen moving across a field about one third the size of the full Moon in about 45 minutes. The field is located in the constellation of the Little Dipper: north is to the left and east is down.

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By Leonard David


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