Close-passing Asteroid Provides Rich Scientific Opportunity

Examining asteroids that come close to earth helps scientists understand our solar system.

On September 9 asteroid 2006 QV89 will (hopefully) whiz past earth. The space rock has been given a 1 in 7,000 chance of hitting earth by the European Space Agency (ESA). Modeling by the agency suggests the space rock will safely cruise by earth, not getting any closer than 6.7 million km to our planet.

Our moon is about 384,400 km away. The 40-meter wide asteroid was discovered on Aug. 29, 2006 by the Catalina Sky Survey, an organization based at an observatory near Tucson, Arizona. This won’t be the first time 2006 QV89 visits us, it is expected to pass by again in 2032, 2045 and 2062.

Close-call space rocks give insights to researchers

Close passing asteroids provide a good opportunity for scientists to find out more about space rocks. Asteroid 99942 Apophis is set to cruise past Earth on April 13, 2029, at its closest point it will just be 1,000 kilometers above the surface of our planet. That’s about the same distance as some spacecraft orbit the earth at.

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While posing no danger, this closeness is a big opportunity for asteroid scientists to examine a space rock in its natural habitat. "The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science," said Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who works on radar observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs). "We'll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size."

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Mark the date

At 40-meter-wide, an asteroid is a special event. Rarely do asteroids of this size pass so close by. If you are around in April in a decades time, the asteroid will even be visible to the naked eye.

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Observers will see a moving point of light, the first to spot it will be those located on the East coast of Australia, it will travel west across the Indian Ocean, then across Africa. It will be at its closest point just before 6 p.m. EDT, over the Atlantic Ocean.

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Super fast moving

It is moving so fast that it can cross the Atlantic in about an hour. Scientists came together earlier this year at the Planetary Defense Conference to discuss strategies for tracking and analyzing Apophis as it passes by. “We already know that the close encounter with Earth will change Apophis' orbit, but our models also show the close approach could change the way this asteroid spins, and it is possible that there will be some surface changes, like small avalanches," said Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at JPL's Center for Near Earth Objects Studies (CNEOS), who co-chaired the April 30 conference session on Apophis with Brozović.

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Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs)," said Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS. "By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defense."

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