Today, at 11:30 a.m. EST an asteroid, large enough to cover five American football fields, will fly closer to Earth than it ever has in recorded history.
“While it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more,” Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
Since the asteroid will be closest during the daytime, the best way to watch it is through one of the virtual observatories. There will be three offering live broadcasts of the asteroid as it flies by Earth:
Slooh will begin broadcasting on today, Jan. 26, at 11 a.m. EST. Their live feed is provided below and will include commentary from experts including Paul Chodas, manager of JPL’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, and Lance Benner, NASA Research Scientist.
The Virtual Telescope Project will begin broadcasting on Jan. 26 at 2:30 p.m. and will also provide real-time images with live commentary by their scientific staff.
Bareket observatory’s Internet-Telescope will have live broadcast of the comet moving across the sky. Their broadcast will begin on Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 1:30 p.m. EST.
The asteroid will also be visible in the sky tonight and tomorrow night. Although it will be too faint to see with the naked eye, observers can spot it with a small telescope or a pair of strong binoculars, weather permitting.
The asteroid will be brightest between 11:07 p.m. and 11:52 p.m. EST on Monday, Jan. 26, according to TheWatchers.
Here’s what it will look like in the night sky on Monday and Tuesday night about three hours after sunset:
The asteroid is travelling at 35,000 mph and will come to within 745,000 miles from Earth. That’s more than three times further than the distance to the Moon. Humans won’t see another asteroid this large shave by Earth for another 12 years. The next one will be asteroid 1999 AN10, in 2027.
Here’s an animation of the asteroid’s path through space compared to Earth’s:
Asteroid 2004 BL86 was first spotted in 2004. Because of its orbital path and size, the asteroid is on Earth’s most wanted listed of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs). This doesn’t mean the asteroid will hit Earth; it means it has the potential to do so. NASA has found 1,537 PHAs so far, none of which have posed a significant danger to Earth.
In 1908, an asteroid only 120 feet across hit Earth and wiped out a part of a Russian forest the size of the city of London. The damage an asteroid the size of 2004 BL86 would be much worse, which is why scientists are on the look-out.
Since asteroid 2004 BL86 won’t be returning to Earth for another 200 years, scientists are making the most of this opportunity.
As the comet approaches Earth, NASA scientists will be watching and collecting data.
JPL astronomer Lance Benner said: “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”