Trio Of Close Asteroid Encounters Begins Tonight With 2014 WC201

Tonight the recently discovered asteroid 2014 WC201 will zoom just 1.4 lunar distances from Earth. Click photo to watch a live webcast starting 5 p.m. CST. Courtesy: Gianluca Masi

The steady pace of discovery of Earth-approaching asteroids in recent years means we’re treated to several close shaves nearly every month. Tonight, an 88 1/2-foot-wide (27 meters) space rock named 2014 WC201 will pass within 336,000 miles or 1.4 lunar distances of Earth around 10:52 p.m. (CST). That’s a comfortable distance, but it does remind us that the solar system continues to offer rocky surprises. Small asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit number in the millions and guarantee we’ll need to keep watch for a long, long time.

2014 WC201 is only about 20 feet larger than the Chelyabinsk meteoroid that fireballed to Earth over Russia in February 2013. The good news is that even asteroids this size are often broken into smaller pieces by the beating they receive from the atmosphere while plunging toward the ground at thousands of miles an hour. That’s exactly what happened with Chelyabinsk and why most of the pieces you see for sale on eBay are small and broken.

Italian astrophysicist and curator of science at the Planetarium of Rome, Gianluca Masi will once again fire up his telescope and webcast 2014 WC201’s flyby live starting at 5 p.m. CST (23:00 Greenwich Time). You’ll be able to see real-time images and listen in on commentary from staff scientists.

In the spirit of holiday discounts, the coming week offers a special 3-for-1 asteroid deal. On December 7 around 2 p.m. (CST), another recent discovery, 2014 WX202, will dare to fly even closer to our blue planet. That afternoon it skims by at a distance of 232,500 miles (374,175 km) or a tad closer than the Moon. Measuring about 20 feet across or the size of a large boulder, this one’s just a baby.

Then on Wednesday December 10th, 23-foot 2014 WU200 zips some 279,000 miles or 1.2 lunar distances away from Earth around 10 a.m. (CST). Because these last two asteroids are extremely faint and will be plagued by a bright Moon, Masi has no plans at present to webcast their arrival.

The 60-inch (1.5-m) Cassegrain reflecting telescope used for the Mt. Lemmon near-Earth-object survey. Credit: Mt. Lemmon / CSS

None will be bright enough to track visually even using a large amateur telescope, but capable astrophotographers might succeed in getting photos. All three will appear identical to faint stars and moving like bats out of hell. 2014 WC201 tracks southeast through Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs at closest approach; WX202 will slice southwest across Aquarius and WU200 passes near the head of Draco the Dragon.

Keep in mind, none are impact risks. All were discovered between November 22-24 by the Mt. Lemmon Survey at Steward Observatory in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. The survey is part of the overall Catalina Sky Survey with a Congressionally-mandated goal of tracking down better than 90% of the 140-meter (459-feet) or larger Near Earth Objects or NEOs. Thankfully, it snags plenty of smaller ones in the process.

8 Responses

  1. Marc

    Hello,

    I found your article interesting, as I saw a spectacular meteor across the sky yesterday evening around 6:45 pm (Dec 1st). I live in Alexandria, MN. I just happened to be glancing out my living room window and there it was. It seemed so close and it lit up the sky with it’s trailing fire balls. I’m curious if others witnessed this event last night as it absolutely dominated the sky? I’m a photographer as well, and would’ve loved to catch that one on the old Canon. Again, I enjoyed the information you shared, as I was trying to find an explanation for this particular event.

    Sincerely,
    Marc

    1. astrobob

      Marc,
      Although a wonderful even to witness it was not related to the passing of 2014 WC201. It didn’t come close enough to Earth to appear in the sky as a meteor.

      1. Heidi

        So what is it that we saw the evening of Dec 1st? I am 130 miles east of Marc, also in Mn and was stunned as I saw that same fireball across the sky. It was fascinating!

        1. astrobob

          Hi Heidi,
          You saw an unrelated fireball meteor caused by a space rock probably as big as a baseball burning up in the atmosphere.

  2. Norman Sanker

    Hey Bob, as far as we know, has this system ever detected anything that has actually struck the Earth or the Moon? The Chelyabinsk event was a surprise, wasn’t it? Just wondering.

  3. Edward M. Boll

    Speaking of asteroids with 3200 Phaethon, the asteroid that acts cometary and is responsible for the Geminid Meteor shower comes to perihelion in March. I would think with the shower and perihelion only 90 plus days apart this may be a good shower this year.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Ed,
      Possibly. It only takes 1.4 years to go around the Sun, so it would reach perihelion within a month of two of the Geminid peak every few years. I’ve never seen any forecast however predicting enhanced activity at perihelion for this object. Interesting thought though.

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