How to find and follow asteroid 2012 DA14 during Friday’s flyby

Get ready for Friday’s flyby of the 150-long rocky asteroid 2012 DA14. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 has become a sizzling topic online and on the TV news. Not a week goes by lately when I don’t hear about “the asteroid that’s going to fly by Earth”. Yesterday John, my mailman, asked me about it.

“Supposed to be half as long as a football field,” he offered. John was right. It’s a good-sized rock – the largest we know of to approach Earth this closely.

It’s fun that folks are excited about this 150-foot long solar system vagabond. I only wish we’d all have a chance to see it. Using the charts and tips below, it’s my hope that many of you will.

2012 DA14 was discovered by astronomers in the La Sagra Sky Survey program in Spain in February 2012. With an orbital period (time it takes to go around the sun) of about 368 days it makes annual spins by Earth. Friday’s flyby will be the closest the asteroid has been for many years and the closest it will come for at least the next 30.

And we do mean close. On Feb. 15 at about 1:24 p.m. (CST), 2012 DA14 will zoom 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface traveling at 17,400 mph. While this is a record approach for a known object of this size, other smaller asteroids have skimmed nearer yet.

We only have to look back to June 27, 2011 when 2011 MD, about 20-50 feet wide, passed just 7,500 miles overhead. No harm came to Earth’s nail-biting residents then and none will during Friday’s pass. The record by the way for the closest-known shave goes to the petite, 3-foot-long 2011 CQ1 at 3,400 miles on Feb. 4, 2011.

2012 DA14 will briefly fly between the geostationary belt of communications satellites (white dots) and the Earth during closest approach Friday Feb. 15. Notice how it comes from under the Earth, moving from south to north. Credit: Simone Corbellini

On average, we’d expect an object of 2012 DA 14′s size to get this close to the Earth about once every 40 years. An actual collision by something this big is far rarer – about once every 1200 years.

On its inbound leg, 2012 DA14 will buzz between the constellation of GPS satellites, which orbit at about 12,600 miles, and the ring of geostationary satellites located about 22,200 miles above Earth’s equator. None will be in danger because the asteroid will come up from below and pass through the empty zone between the two.

Some 300 active weather and communications satellites are parked in orbit in the ring and relay communications around the globe. When your favorite TV weatherperson flashes pictures of storms and hurricanes taken from space, you can bet it was photographed and transmitted back to Earth by a geostationary satellite. There are presently about 32 GPS satellites used by government and consumers alike to pinpoint precise locations on the ground.

Simulation of the original constellation of 24 GPS satellites orbiting Earth. Credit: Wikipedia

As the asteroid zips by, Earth’s gravity will bend its orbit, changing its orbital period from 368 to 317 days and making close approaches like this one less likely. As for 2012 DA14 striking any satellite at all, Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says it’s “extremely remote.” Given the huge volume of space the asteroid must pass through as it swings by Earth and the tiny number of potential targets, we might liken it to a gnat in a mansion.

Despite its proximity, 2012 DA14′s tiny size means not even the largest telescopes will show it as more than a star-like point of light. If you live in eastern Europe, Asia or Australia, you’ll see the asteroid at its closest, when it not only be brightest but moving fastest. I’ve seen a few Earth-approaching asteroids, and they really can book across the sky, but few travel as fast as this one will. In just three hours centered on closest approach, 2012 DA14 will zip from the Southern Cross all the way to the Bowl of the Big Dipper!

World map with time zones. The area inside the red circle shows very approximately where the asteroid will be visible in a dark sky when it’s closest and brightest. Map credit: Wikipedia

It reaches peak brightness around 1:24 p.m. (CST) or 7:30 p.m. in London, England. While the sky will be dark there at that time, the asteroid will still not have risen in the east. We have to go travel farther east and south to catch it at its brightest. Let’s pick Athens, Greece. There the the sky will be dark early enough to spot the asteroid at its brightest (magnitude 7.4) low in Virgo around 10 p.m. local time using standard 40-50mm binoculars. Observers should look for a dim “star” slowly moving from south to north in the field of view.

A map from Heavens Above showing the entire sky from Jakarta, Indonesia. The labeled arc is the asteroid’s path during the night. Credit: Chris Peat

As we continue moving east across the globe, 2012 DA14 gets higher and higher in a dark sky. If you sense the eastern hemisphere has the best seats in the house, you’re right.

Residents of Jakarta, Indonesia for example will see the whole show from beginning to end. Fortunate sky watchers there can spot 2012 DA14 with a telescope around 1 a.m. Saturday morning Feb. 16 (local time) near the Southern Cross.

By 3 a.m. they can switch over to binoculars to catch it at maximum brightness.  At dawn, the asteroid will have made a complete south-to-north beeline from Cross to Dipper and once again require a telescope to see. What a way to spend a night out, eh?

Did I say it was moving quickly? When nearest Earth, 2012 DA14 will hurry along at 1 degree or two full moon diameters per minute. Not only will you need binoculars, you’ll also need to know exactly where to look. By the time the sky is dark across the U.S., South America and Canada Friday night, the asteroid will have slowed considerably and faded to around magnitude 11.5 -12.

Sadly, U.S. sky watchers will need a 6-inch or larger telescope to find and follow it. The good news is that the asteroid will be conveniently placed in the northern sky near the Little Dipper.

The asteroid is shown at three times for an observer in Athens, Greece Friday evening facing east around 9:45 p.m. local time. 1 = 9:45 p.m., 2 = 10 p.m. and 3 = 10:15 p.m. Stars are plotted to about magnitude 7.5, the asteroid’s brightness at the time. Credit: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I’ve given much thought on how to prepare charts for viewing 2012 DA14. When brightest, it’s not only crossing a great deal of sky in a hurry, but it’s so close to Earth that viewers in say, Vienna, will see it in a somewhat different part of the sky than those in Greece. You can’t make a one-size-fits-all chart for this bugger.

What I did instead was to create two charts – one for Athens, Greece and another for the central U.S. The Greek chart shows the asteroid when closest and brightest; the U.S. chart is centered on Duluth but is useful for a larger region, because the asteroid will be far enough away at that time for the path shift to be much smaller.

Just remember that you’ll need a telescope and good knowledge of the sky to find and follow our friend from the U.S. Use the charts to locate where the asteroid will be at a particular time and then wait for it to arrive as you gaze through the eyepiece.

2012DA14 will have faded to 11.5-12.0 magnitude when it gets dark enough to see it in the U.S., so you’ll need this more detailed chart to find it. Times are Central Standard for Friday Feb. 15, 2013. North is up and stars plotted to mag. 13. Brighter stars labeled with magnitudes. Right-click, save and print out for use at the telescope. Credit: Created with Emil Bonnano’s MegaStar atlas.

I highly recommend two websites that will show you a map of 2012 DA14′s path in your local sky as well as two other options for creating your own map:

Heavens Above - Webmaster Chris Peat has prepared a special 2012 DA14 page on this well-known satellite prediction site. Head over, log in with your location and then click the 2012 DA14 link at the top of the page for a map with times. If you select a spot on the asteroid’s path and click again, you’ll be shown a detailed map with stars to 8th magnitude European, Asian and Down Under sky watchers will find these maps most useful.

* Visual SAT-Flare Tracker 3D - Select your location and click on the 2012 DA14 asteroid header. Then click on the “Best opportunity to see the asteroid from your location” link to see a star map and asteroid path. Be aware that the faintest stars shown here are only about 6th magnitude (naked eye limit), but they’ll still be quite useful for tracking; webmaster Simone Corbellini uses the very accurate JPL Horizons data (see below) for path-making.

* Do-it-yourself – If you have your own star-charting program that allows you to add new asteroids to the database, go to the Minor Planet Center and grab 2012 DA14′s orbital elements. Enter these into your program and print your own star chart. Again, because of how close the asteroid will be, its path might be somewhat different than what your program will show, but at least you’ll be in the neighborhood.

* Tedious but foolproof method – Head over to the JPL Horizon site, type 2012 DA14 into the search box, select your city, time interval (whether you want an asteroid position every 15 minutes, hour or whatever) and then click “Generate ephemeris”. You can hand-plot the positions listed onto a star chart you’ve made with your software program. Be aware that all the times are Universal Time or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Subtract 5 hours for Eastern time, 6 for Central and so on. This method has worked very well for me during previous close flybys.

Good luck and I hope a few of you get to see this running rock!

43 thoughts on “How to find and follow asteroid 2012 DA14 during Friday’s flyby

  1. Aloha Astro Bob and Everyone!

    Finally, the blog we’ve anticipated for so long has finally arrived and it’s a “doozy”! I believe you’ve given all the information there is to give on this one, Bob. This may be one of your longest blogs of recent history (I may be wrong, of course) and for good reason, with all the interest in it, it’s best to tell as much as possible to avoid “repeating” yourself answering questions.

    One thing that always seems hard for me to grasp is how these things manage to ‘come and go’ without hitting any (of the approx. 300) satellites! Granted, they aren’t all on the same orbital plane but still are “bunched” around the earths equatorial area, are they not? With all those ACTIVE ones and if you include all the “space junk” that seems to be spinning around also, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we didn’t hear of either a satellite or space junk being hit and perhaps “ricocheting” into an active satellite. Yes, I know it’s traveling incredibly fast but if something is in the way, speed doesn’t make it invisible or without substance, correct?

    To me, it seems that when NEO’s come this close and with so much “stuff” orbiting earth, the “experts” dismiss the whole “idea” of any collision(s) too quickly and easily. I’d prefer it if they would at least use a bit more caution in their thinking. One space agency I KNOW will be watching this NEO with all they have is NASA. We do, after all, have many human beings living in the ISS (International Space Station) that is orbiting right along with the satellites and space junk. Even the ISS has to make the occasional “rocket” engine burst to avoid hitting or being hit by them. I’m hoping the ISS is on the opposite side of the planet from 2012 DA14 when it is whizzing by at its closest.

    Of course I didn’t major in Astronomy or any type/kind of “space engineering” in college. Perhaps if I had, then I’d be able to understand how easily any possible collisions could be made. In general, it just seems the “odds” aren’t in favor of this NEO hitting nothing at all, but of course I will be hoping and praying its “visit” is completely uneventful.

    Again, thank you for finally posting this much anticipated information Bob. I know I’m not the only one who has been waiting for it!

    Aloha Just For Now!

    • Thank you very much Wayne. I wish the blog could have been shorter really, but there you have it. Just so we’re clear, the asteroid won’t be near any low Earth orbiting satellite like the ISS, which is about 250 miles up. At closest, it’s over 17,000 miles away. It may threaten a GPS or communications satellite – there’s always a chance – but not a single other asteroid flyby this close or closer has yet to do so and there have been a bunch. There’s a lot of space out there compared to this flea of an object.

      • Aloha “A.” Bob! ;-}

        Thank you for your response as always. I had a feeling you’d be getting more “replies” than your average amount due to the “popularization” of this NEO by the media and our anticipation of your blog on it.
        If these objects do anything positive, they at least seem to capture the attention of some folks that would otherwise not give the “cosmos” a 2nd thought. With that I’m sure there are a few who find themselves suddenly very interested in this subject once they find and read your blogs and that is totally awesome in my opinion. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “too many amateur astronomers”, agree?
        In your response above, you said, “It may threaten a GPS or communications satellite – there’s always a chance – but not a single other asteroid flyby this close or closer has yet to do so and there have been a bunch.”
        Even though I’m not a gambling man, I DO believe in the “odds theory”, such as when scientists say the “odds” of another “dinosaur exterminating-type” asteroid like the one that hit earth 65 million years ago isn’t likely to happen again for another 20 million (or so) years, could likely apply in cases such as this. As you said, there have been a bunch and because of that (and this is COMPLETELY MY opinion here) the odds are leaning more toward having one hit something “man-made” orbiting the earth more sooner than much later. The more times (and the more time that passes) a NEO cruises by without incident, the higher the odds go in favor of the next one to create one.
        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those “doom and gloom” types that tends to convince themselves of a catastrophe every chance they get, far from it. I prefer to think I’m more of a realist who tries to stay “cautiously optimistic”, if that is possible in cases like these, that’s all.
        I know there is a lot of space up there and one could compare our orbiting satellites to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and how in reality, it would be much easier to fly through than what the “Hollywood” movies have tended to make most folks believe. In other words, there is a heck of a lot more empty space between those asteroids (and our orbiting satellites) than movies portray. Just another way of putting it I guess. Plus, having it flyby in a south to north pattern certainly decreases the “odds” of it hitting anything. If it were to flyby in a west to east/east to west pattern where it would have to enter and exit our “satellite belt” directly, then the opposite would hold true.
        You know what? I think I’ve “over-thunk” (!) this and should give it a rest.
        I sure hope someone somewhere captures a wonderful photo of 2012 DA14 that shows some HD details of it as it would be nice to know more about the composition of it. We’ll have to wait and see. Good thing most astronomers are patient people!
        Thanks again.

        Aloha For Now!

        • Thanks for your comments Wayne. Asteroids do hit Earth every year – smaller ones of course – but there are typically half a dozen witnessed meteorite falls per year resulting from small asteroids breaking up in the atmosphere. But yes, the odds do eventually stack up, which is why it’s inevitable a larger one will come down someday.

  2. I live in southern California U.S. I have a nice telescope and am hoping to use it Feb. 15. I cant find a decent “where to look” map. I like the tracking maps you have on this site, but they all seem to be in other country’s. So my question is: is there a good tracking map or where to look map for the U.S. (so.cal. us.) Thank you.

    • Hi Heidi,
      The only map I make for the U.S. was the last one (near bottom of blog) using MegaStar. The maps on those other sites will not be useful for U.S. observers because they cut off at 8th magnitude and the asteroid will be 12th magnitude by the time it gets dark at your site in California. Unfortunately, my map is for the Eastern half of the U.S. I may consider others maps later in the week, but in the meantime if you already have a detailed star atlas, you can make your own by following “Tedious but reliable” section of the blog. These close asteroids are really tricky to make maps for because widely-separated locations see it against a different set of background stars due to perspective (parallax). I’m not aware at this point of any other detailed maps for U.S. observers but if I find them, I’ll write it up in the blog.

      • Thank you Astrobob. I use an android google star map app. Will it be in the night sky in so. Calif.? If so around what time. And around what star constellations will it be going by. Thank you. Heidi
        By the way. Love your site. I am a novice sky gazer obsessed with what’s out there. I
        never had an intrest in the stars and planets untill my 9 year old had to a report on the planet of his choice. We choose Saturn. After that got a 4 1/2 inch.
        telescope .

        • Hi Heidi,
          Yes, the asteroid will be in the night sky all night in the Little Dipper. Unfortunately your 4 1/2 inch scope will prove just a little too small to see it. By the time it gets dark where you live, you’ll need a 6-inch or larger telescope. I’m so glad you’re getting into the stars. It’s a great time to do so with all the resources out there.

  3. Great guide to 2012 DA14! Thanks for spending the time to put up such a comprehensive set of viewing tips, AstroBob! Will have to keep my fingers crossed for clear skies on Friday.

    The flea in a mansion analogy is a good one, I too was wondering about space junk collisions.

  4. Hi Bob, thanks for all the info in the blog! I was seeing a star map for southern hemisphere and the closest seeing on Friday would be early in the morning. After that its only for the northern. Do you think it would be visible Friday morning in the southern hemisphere?

    • Javier,
      The closest approach for the southern hemisphere (Australia, NZ and the like) will occur early Saturday morning Feb. 16 local time. I initially wrote Friday for East Asian / Australian observers but forgot the date changeover after midnight. My bad. If you live in that region, you’ll see it Sat. morning only. It will be too faint Friday morning to be visible in even a larger telescope. If you live in the southern hemisphere half of South America, the asteroid will be extremely low in the northern sky Friday Feb. 15 early evening and very tough to see at all. By the time it gets dark, it will have faded to 11-12 magnitude.

  5. Nice work Bob! Great writing that’s very understandable for folks like myself. Love the link to the Northern Lights photos in Iceland too. Keep up the excellent work! Mike.

    • Hey Mike,
      Great to hear from you and thanks! When we don’t get northern lights here, I depend on many kind souls who are willing to share their photos. I hope you’re doing well and the house is coming along.

  6. hi Bob. I remember you talked about an asteroid impact calculator in your earlier post. Is it correct to say that if this rock would not miss Earth it will still break up in high atmosphere?

    • Rene,
      That depends on its composition. We only know it’s made of rock but not how porous or if it’s a flying rubble pile. If rubble or porous, it could break up safely in atmosphere (if it were to hit) and drop a few meteorites. If dense and solid, it would make a significant crater and cause massive local damage. Something like Meteor Crater in Arizona.

  7. Hello bob

    My name is jesus an amateur in this subject from mex city
    Would you be so kind to inform me what will be the best place to look for this asteroid???? And around what time??? I am located at central time…

    Thanks for your time and attention

    Greetings from mexico!!

  8. Thanks Bob for this perfect guide (particularly for the Europe chart and the useful links), and also for the other recent blogs.

  9. Hi Bob
    Thanks for the info on the neo, very much appreciated as it must of took you a while to write, and i’m intrigued about today’s one your doing:-)

  10. Me again Bob, just reading Wayne’s comment and I know that one day one will or might hit, but reading on past posts from David Morrison I believe he said that there is no asteroid out there as huge as the dinosaur one that will come along anytime soon and that there is no threatening asteroid of the extinct level that would cause that will hit us in our lifetime, so I sure hope there’s nobody reading this who’s 90 or so lol, but I know he said the biggest threat to this earth is global warming, but I am sure there will be one on a smaller size but hopefully hits somewhere with no population and minimum damage. Thanks for letting me rattle on there Bob :-)

    • Aloha Lynn, Astro Bob and All!

      I just wanted to make a comment to Lynn in regards to Dave Morrison’s comments…anyone who states flat out that “there is NO asteroid out there as huge as the dinosaur one that will come along anytime soon and that there is no threatening asteroid of the extinct level that would cause that will hit us in our lifetime” isn’t thinking clearly. Sure, we’ve “cataloged” many asteroids/meteors/NEO’s that are whizzing around, however, we do not have the capabilities to catch them ALL. New ones are being discovered almost every day! So for anyone to say that there aren’t any NEO’s out there to be concerned about extinguishing life on earth is pure “wishful thinking” on their part.
      Don’t be fooled by anyone. One could impact us in the next moment that no one noticed! Some of these NEO’s aren’t even “found” until AFTER they have had their near earth event.
      I do agree with him and global warming…our capacity as a species to ignore certain FACTS that can change our lives and environment because we’d have to surrender some “creature comforts”, never ceases to amaze me!

      • Wayne,
        While you’re correct that one could hit us any day, especially a small one that could cause regional destruction, the big “climate changing” ones are very rare and we know of none on a collision course. There aren’t even any in the 150-meter class headed our way in the near future. While a large hit could still happen, you have to look at probabilities. There are a total of about 981 one-kilometer and larger near-Earth asteroids (the bad boys that could potentially threaten the planet), and dedicated NASA ground and satellite surveys have found 93% or 911 of them. Read more here: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/news/wise20110929.html

  11. hi,
    I am Amar Singh Sindal, Born on 5th March 1979 at 5:15am.
    I am a straight forward person and hence it is causing me a lot of problem at my work place. I enjoyed my last job.
    kindly let me know about my what will be my future If I continue in the same job.
    I also have some plan to start business with my friend.
    kindly advice.
    Regards.
    Amar Singh

    • Amar,
      I can say with confidence that the time of your birth and the positions of the planets at that moment then will not affect your future plans. Astrology is a relic of the remote past before we understood what planets and stars really are.

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