2012 LZ1 Flyby Tonight; Pesky Asteroids Could Get Laser Treatment

Animation of 2012 LZ1 compiled from 10-second exposures with a 78" telescope June 13.

Amateur astronomers with 10-inch or larger telescopes can watch newly discovered near-Earth asteroid 2012 LZ1 slowly crawl from northern Sagittarius into southern Aquila tonight. Although it’s on the larger side – between 984 to 2,300 feet across – LZ1 will be faint because it won’t pass as close as several other notable Earth approachers have this year.

Minimum distance from Earth occurs early this evening around 8 p.m. CDT when the giant rock will be 3.4 million miles away or about 14 times the distance of the moon. Thanks to Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni Sostero we can watch it stroll across the sky (left).

LZ1 will shine meekly at 14th magnitude (very faint) and move about 20 arc minutes or 2/3 the width of the full moon an hour to the northeast. That’s quick it enough to notice its movement over several minutes time through a telescope. If you have clouds tonight, the asteroid will be out again tomorrow night June 15 and appear only slightly fainter.

To plot its position, please stop by JPL’s Horizons website, select your city and click the Generate Ephemeris link. You’ll be taken to a table of Universal times (Remember to subtract 4 hours for EDT, 5 for CDT and so on) and positions which you can plot on a detailed sky chart. You can also grab 2012 LZ1’s orbital elements to plunk into your own sky charting program by going HERE and typing the name into the search box.

One idea for deflecting potentially dangerous asteroids uses "mirror bees", small satellites equipped with mirrors that focus sunlight on the asteroid to vaporize rocks and create thrust. Credit: The Planetary Society

While this asteroid poses no threat to our planet, some day, whether this year or 100,000 years from now, astronomers will discover a significant space rock on a collision course with Earth. You’ve probably heard of ideas on how we might deflect or destroy such an object before it becomes our nemesis. These range from using nuclear bombs to blast it to bits to landing a type of rocket thruster on its surface that would continuously fire, slowly changing the body’s orbit. We might also send a swarm of small satellites equipped with mirrors to focus sunlight and vaporize rocks on the asteroid’s surface. The gas created would drive the body out of harm’s way.

A U.S. military scientist operates a powerful blue laser in a lab. Click photo to learn how lasers work.

In a new twist, two researchers at University of
Strathclyde in Scotland suggest we deploy solar-powered lasers. Similar to sunlight, the lasers would cook rock into streams of hot vapor, pushing the asteroid off course and hopefully saving the planet.  The advantage of lasers vs. sunlight is that the satellites could do their beaming from a much greater distance, avoiding getting cameras and sensors sandblasted and ruined by rock dust. To read more about this intriguing idea, click HERE.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on June 9, 2012 from Port Wing, Wis. Credit: William Wiethoff

I also wanted to update you on Comet L4 PANSTARRS, which is expected to become a bright morning comet next March. PANSTARRS continues its slow westward trek through Scorpius on its way to Libra the Scales tomorrow night. I followed the comet two nights ago and found the little guy shining at magnitude 12.5.

If you’re planning to observe it, look for a very small blob with a brighter center. On close scrutiny you might be able to see the comet’s coma extending to the east as a small hood visible in the photo at right. Use the chart and link below to guide you there.

Chart showing Comet L4 PANSTARRS (see below for details) each night around 11 p.m. CDT now through June 22. North is up and east to the left. Click chart to go to a larger, easier-to-read version you can download. Credit: Emil Bonnano's MegaStar software

14 Responses

  1. Robert Williams

    I have always been a fan of Astronomy and would like to invest in a new telescope. I have a small telescope and if you have the time to discuss this with me I would appreciate it. I don’t want to under invest in this type of instrument because I know that I will not be satisfied with the outcome. I could spend as much as 10K for a telescope and would like to hear from you what I should be looking out for. Should I consider used equipment? Are the super sophisticated models not worth the extra money? These are some of the questions I have. Any information would be helpful.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Robert,
      If you know me, you know I’m not into much sophistication when it comes to telescopes. I basically use Dobsonian reflectors. I do think good optics are important, though, especially eyepieces with wide fields of view that provide a “picture window” view of deep sky objects. You may want to consider a 10-12.5 inch Dobsonian reflector with a red-dot finderscope and good set of 2-3 eyepieces. You might consider a basic electronic keypad device that will allow you to punch in an object’s name and move the scope until it’s centered in the view. It’s a relatively inexpensive add-on.

    2. russ

      Any possibility of building your own? My brother’s astronomy class’ teacher ground his own lenses and everything.

      1. astrobob

        Hi Russ,
        Yes, a lot of amateurs grind their own mirrors (very few grind their own lenses), buy a commercial diagonal mirror and build their own tube and mount.

  2. Larry Regynski

    This comet needs a new name, especially if it is going to be a bright naked-eye comet. Do you think the IAU will do so, and has it been done before?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Larry,
      Actually I kind of like the ring of PANSTARRS. No, the name won’t be changed. The full name – quite a mouthful – is C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS. The name is linked to the survey. There are similar survey comet names like LINEAR, LONEOS, Spacewatch and WISE.

  3. alsunni

    can I name an asteroid that I have discovered after my surname or my grandfather
    while I am amateur astronomer

    1. astrobob

      Hi alsunni,
      Yes, you can name an asteroid after a surname but it must be no more than 16 characters long and can’t be identical or too similar to an already-named asteroid. You will first have to propose the name to the International Astronomical Union for approval.

  4. alsunni

    if i discovered a new asteroid online data in websites like IASC
    AND i have to name it ,how can i get access to the IAU in paris to propose it
    while i am in sudan and can not go there or how to contact them

    1. astrobob

      Has your discovery been confirmed by anyone? It won’t be possible to propose a name unless it’s confirmed that the object you found is brand new either by another observer (or by several observations made by yourself) and you’ve calculated an orbit for it. Only when a new asteroid has a well-known orbit will it get a number. Once it gets a number then you can suggest a name to the IAU. Just so you know, the process can take years.

  5. alsunni

    must you the discoverer calculate its orbit or someone else can do it also,
    you did not tell me how to contact the IAU to propose the name while I
    am away in my homecountery and can not go to IAU Paris to propose it

    1. astrobob

      Yes, an orbit must be calculated so that future returns of the asteroid can be predicted. To calculate an orbit, you need at least a few additional observations of the asteroid at different times either made by you or someone else. Knowing its orbit will help you know whether you’ve discovered a NEW object or one that is already cataloged. Once you have enough precise positions based on observation, you can report that information to the IAU. If they determine that you have found a new asteroid, they will assign the asteroid a temporary designation. Once the orbit is refined, it will then receive a number. ONLY after it gets a number can you propose a name. It’s a long process that can take years.
      Here is what you need to know and what information will be needed for the report: http://www.iau.org/public/themes/discoveries/

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