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Large Asteroid To Come Closer Than Moon

Shea Huffman |
November 5, 2011 | 4:41 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

This radar image from April 2010 shows  2005 YU 55, which will be visible by telescope Tuesday. (Image credit, NASA)
This radar image from April 2010 shows 2005 YU 55, which will be visible by telescope Tuesday. (Image credit, NASA)
Earth will have a close encounter Tuesday with a huge asteroid that will pass closer to the planet than the moon, giving scientists a opportunity to study it without the need for costly probes, officials said.

The quarter-mile-wide asteroid will pass about 201,000 miles away (for reference, the moon is about 240,000 miles away) at 3:29 p.m. PST. This will be the Earth's closest encounter with something of such size in 35 years, according to scientists.

From Reuters:

"It is the first time since 1976 that an object of this size has passed this closely to the Earth. It gives us a great -- and rare -- chance to study a near-Earth object like this," astronomer Scott Fisher, a program director with the National Science Foundation, said Thursday during a Web chat with reporters.

The orbit and position of the asteroid, which is about 1,312 feet in diameter, is well known, added senior research scientist Don Yeomans, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"There is no chance that this object will collide with the Earth or moon," Yeomans said.

Yeomans also said the orbit of the asteroid, named 2005 YU 55, has been mapped-out for the next 100 years, and that NASA does not believe it will ever impact Earth or the moon.

Amateur and professional astronomers will be able to see the asteroid in the Northern Hemisphere in the early evening Nov. 8, but they will need a "decent-sized telescope" to see it, according to Yeomans.

Yeomans also said 2005 YU 55 is a C-type asteroid, which is rich in carbon-based materials and could contain water-bearing minerals and ice, things scientists will look for with radar images and chemical measurements. Discovery of frozen water would support theories that such an asteroid may have brought carbon-based materials and water to early Earth, thus planting the seeds of life, said Yeomans.

Other C-type asteroids could also serve as sources of fuel and water for future missions with astronauts.

NASA has a mission planned in 2020 to retrieve soil samples from an asteroid, and also plans to land humans on one in the mid-2020s.

Update: NASA has released a video of the asteroid generated from radar data.

Reach reporter Shea Huffman by email, or follow him on Twitter.


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