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.
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.