All eyes will be on asteroid 2004 BL86 Monday night

Big boy asteroid 2004 BL86 will pass close enough to Earth tomorrow night (Jan. 26th) to show up in small telescopes. Credit: NASA

January’s been a busy month for skywatchers. Between bright comets, their outbursts and the recent triple shadow transit at Jupiter it’s finally time to catch our collective breath. Maybe hole up in the house and keep warm.

Banish the thought.

Monday night Jan. 26th an obscure asteroid with the moniker 2004 BL86 will make a relatively close pass of Earth, zipping by at 3.1 times the distance of the moon or some 750,000 miles (1.2 million km).

Not a big deal, right? At least once a month a space rock gets this close or closer. Except that this space rock isn’t your typical “tiny house”. 2004 BL86 is 2,230 feet (680 meters) across – more like a space mountain – and big enough and close enough to be easily visible in a small telescope. Even even a Wal-Mart scope will show it. No exaggeration.

This graphic shows the path of asteroid 2004 BL86 with its position shown for Jan. 19th. Closest approach to Earth occurs around 10 a.m (CST) Jan. 26th. The asteroid will fade after Monday but continue to be visible in modest amateur telescopes through about Jan. 29th. Click to see an animation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At magnitude +9 under a dark sky the asteroid would be faintly visible with a pair of 10×50 binoculars, but the half moon will be out, so you’ll need a 3-inch or larger scope binoculars in the 15×70 range to spot it. The good news is that the object remains close to 9th magnitude from 6 p.m. to midnight (CST) with peak brightness around 10 p.m.

Discovered 11 years ago, hence the “2004” prefix, 2004 BL86 is the largest asteroid to pass closest to Earth until 2027 when 1999 AN10 will beat it by coming within one lunar distance. This will also be the asteroid’s closest approach to our planet for at least the next two hundred years, so if you want to see it before you’re six feet under, now’s the time to put on a coat and toddle out the scope.

Map showing the hourly progress of 2004 BL86 Monday evening January 26th as crosses Cancer the Crab not far from Jupiter. Stars are shown to magnitude +9. Numbers at the tick marks show the time (CST) each hour starting at 6 p.m., then 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and so on. Click for a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

All asteroids with well-determined orbits receive a number designation. The very first asteroid discovered, Ceres in 1801, got the #1 spot. Asteroid 13,683 Monty Python (no kidding) was discovered in August 1967. Our featured space mountain numbers 357,439 making its full designation (357439) 2004 BL86. If you’re looking for a new password, this is it.

Black stars-on-white version of the map above which you might find more useful. Click to see and download a large version.

OK, so let’s talk how to see this speeding “star”. Observers in the Americas, Europe and Africa will have the best seats when the asteroid shines brightest between 7 p.m. and midnight (CST) Monday night from a comfortably high perch in Cancer the Crab not far from the planet Jupiter.

Because 2004 BL86 will be near Earth it will be zipping along at the rate of about 2° or four moon diameters per hour. That means you’ll need to use detailed maps to find and track the asteroid as it moves in real time.

Notice that the 2004 BL86 passes near a couple relatively bright stars and even skirts the edge of the bright Beehive star cluster, also known as M44. These are good places to “lie in wait” for the object to move into the field of view. I usually pick a spot some minutes ahead of where the asteroid will be and familiarize myself with the star field. That way, when it arrives, it really stands out. Remember, you’ll be looking for a star-like object slowly crossing the field of view. In reality, it’s sailing by Earth at around 35,000 mph.

Detailed map showing stars down to magnitude +9.5. Click to see and print out a larger version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Another thing to remember is that near-Earth asteroids will sometimes be a little bit off a particular track depending on your location. Not much but enough that I recommend you scan not just the single spot where you expect to see it but also nearby in the field of view. Just look for a “star” not plotted on the map and keep an eye on it for movement.

Once you nab your prey, follow it for 10, 15 or 30 minutes. It makes for good sport to watch it brush by stars along its path. The closer it comes to a star the more dramatic its apparent motion appears. You should also watch for changes in its brightness as the asteroid rotates. Depending upon shape and rotation rate (unknown at this point) asteroids can show large enough brightness variations to be seen visually at the telescope.

Radar images like these made of asteroid 2007 PA8 will also be made during 2004 BL86’s flyby. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You won’t be the only one watching. Astronomers plan to use NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to ping the asteroid with microwaves to generate images of it during the time around its closest approach. We hope to share those pictures as soon as they’re available.

As always, Dr. Gianluca Masi, Italian astrophysicist, will stream live coverage of the event beginning at 1:30 p.m. (19:30 UT) Monday. And don’t worry about Earth getting hit. Not only is this asteroid many thousands of miles away, but our planet’s gravity can’t “pull” it in because the beast is moving rapidly along its own orbit. At worst, Earth’s gravity may alter its orbit some. That’s it – so enjoy!

Even tinier asteroid 2014 EC flies just 48,000 miles from Earth tomorrow

This is where 2014 EC is today as it heads towards its close Earth flyby tomorrow. Credit: NASA/JPL

Don’t forget to look both ways. You can hardly cross the street but another asteroid comes flying by. Last night astronomers discovered a new object named 2014 EC. This one’s tiny – only 33 feet (10 meters) across or about half the size of the asteroid that blasted to bits over Chelyabinsk, Russia last February.

It zooms by Earth tomorrow March 6 around 3 p.m. CST at a distance of just 48,000 miles (77,000 km). Again, there’s no threat of a strike. Asteroids can pass very close to the planet without getting “sucked in” by gravity because they’re moving forward in their orbits at tens of thousands of miles an hour. That’s a lot of momentum.

Still, a small asteroid making a pass near Earth doesn’t get away scot-free. Much like the Voyager space probe (and others) that passed close to one planet to slingshot to the next, small asteroids passing near Earth have their orbits re-shaped by our planet’s gravity and sent on their way on a different trajectory.

Three classes of asteroids that pass near Earth or cross its orbit are named for the first member discovered — Apollo, Aten and Amor. Apollo asteroids like 2014 EX110 routinely cross Earth’s orbit, Atens briefly cross and Amors cross Mars’ orbit but miss Earth’s. Credit: ESA

As 2014 EC is another Earth-approaching asteroid like 2014 EX110, there’s always a possibility it could smack out planet in the future. And I do mean future. At the moment, there’s a one in 2.7 million chance of an impact in 2025. Once more observations are in and the orbit refined, those chances will likely be even less.

Amateur astronomers living in Europe, the Middle East and Africa will be able to spot this little rock shining dimly at around magnitude 13.5-14.0 for a couple of hours centered on closest approach as its tears across the constellations Hydra, Antlia and Vela. You’ll need at least an 8-inch telescope to spot it. Click HERE to get positions to make a map of its travels.

For those of us without giant telescopes or living where it daytime during the close passage, the Virtual Telescope Project will feature a live webcast of 2014 EC’s flyby. Tune in around 1:30 p.m. CST. If that link isn’t working, please check SLOOH’s live-cast HERE.

Asteroid 2014 DX110 shoots by Earth today, misses planet by 216,000 miles

Asteroid 2014 DX110 orbits in nearly the same plane as Earth’s orbit and will be passing 0.9 lunar distances (216,00 miles) from us around 3 p.m. today. Credit: Virtual Telescope Project

The space rocks just keep a comin’. This time, newly discovered 2014 DX110 will pass just 216,000 miles from the Earth today around 3 p.m. CST. Break out those stopwatches – this 98-foot-wide bugger will be speeding by at 32,076 mph.

Bear in mind that close flybys of Earth are fairly routine with an average of one or two asteroids a month passing within the moon’s distance of our planet. 2014 DX 110 is no exception and poses no harm to Earth. What makes the flyby of interest is the very thing that makes it so routine. We now see so many of these lively asteroidal sprites thanks to better equipment and multiple sky surveys. This one was captured by the Pan-STARRS1 survey from Maui, Hawaii  on Feb. 28.

You can also watch the flyby on live webcast with commentary courtesy of the fine folks at the Virtual Telescope Project. The show starts at 3:30 p.m. CST (4:30 Eastern, 1:30 Pacific). If you miss it, the group plans another live Webcast when 2014 CU13 zips by on March 10. While that asteroid’s larger at 590 feet (180 meters), it will be considerably farther at 1.86 million miles.

Illustration showing asteroids orbiting the sun. Apollo asteroids like 2014 DX110 have orbits that take them from inside the asteroid belt at farthest to approximately Earth’s distance from the sun when closest. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

2014 DX110 belongs to the same class of near-Earth asteroids from whence came the mighty meteorite that exploded over Russia last February 15. These Earth-crossings bodies are named for asteroid 1862 Apollo, discovered in 1932. Apollos have orbits that take them very near the Earth with the potential for a future collision.

Don’t worry too much about DX110. According to NASA’s Earth Impact Risk Summary site, it has a 1 in 10,000,00 chance of hitting the planet on March 4, 2046. But since this estimate is based only on 28 observations spanning just under 4 days, future observations will probably lessen that barely significant probability even more.

Too bad a close approach won’t mean a bright point of light. The asteroid isn’t expected to get any brighter than magnitude 15, putting it well beyond the reach of beginners and even many amateurs. Why? It’s just too small. You’ll need at a 12.5-inch telescope and a darn good map to track it, since DX110 will be dashing across the sky.

Most likely you’ll be pouring another cup of coffee or trying not to yawn too loudly at a meeting when 2014 DX110 goes whizzing by later today. Or maybe you’ll get fired up and dial up a live view at the link above. Know this. Despite over 4.5 billion years of time to clean up its act, the solar system still has enough leftover rocks and snowballs to rattle the nerves. Just a little.

UPDATE March 5: Another just-discovered asteroid, 2014 EC, will pass considerably closer to Earth tomorrow at 3 p.m. – hey, how about that, same as today’s flyby. Predictions call for it to miss us by 48,000 miles. Again, there’s no threat of a strike. Asteroids can pass very close to the planet without concern about being “sucked in” by gravity because they’re moving forward in their orbits far too fast. The Virtual Telescope Project will also be featuring a live webcast of 2014 EC’s flyby.

(Note: The webcast link for 2014 EC is correct but I’ve noticed it doesn’t connect on occasion. I’ll update again if the link changes. You can also check out SLOOH’s live-cast HERE.)

Juno out of safe mode, sends first photos of Earth

This photo of Earth, showing the southern half of South America (upper right) is one of the first photos Juno sent home after its flyby. It was taken by the probe’s Junocam and methane filter at 2:06 p.m. CDT Oct. 9. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer

After a technical glitch that put the Jupiter-bound Juno space probe into “safe mode” after Wednesday’s Earth flyby, the probe is back to full health. This according to Ken Kramer of Universe Today.

NASA pre-programs spacecraft to put themselves in safe mode in case of unexpected technical troubles to prevent further problems down the line. No one knows what caused the snafu, but to the relief of all, Juno popped out of safe mode yesterday afternoon at 4:12 p.m. CDT and returned several early photos of Earth shot during the close encounter.

The flyby, which took the probe within 350 miles of the Earth’s surface, let Juno steal a bit of Earth’s gravitational energy to slingshot its way to Jupiter at a much higher speed. Juno gained some 16,330 mph (26,280 km/hr) after the close shave; the bending of its orbital path by Earth’s gravity targeted the spacecraft to within 1.24 miles (2 km) of its planned aiming point.

Well done NASA, well done. Read Ken’s complete story HERE.

Juno flyby a success but probe departs Earth in “safe mode”

41 five-second exposures of the rapidly moving spacecraft Juno photographed with an 11-inch telescope from Chelmsford, UK last night. Credit: Nick James

Juno got the gravity boost it needed to send it onward to its Jupiter encounter in July 2016 but not without a hitch. It whizzed just 350 miles above Earth’s surface yesterday afternoon, but when it emerged from the planet’s shadow into sunlight, scientists discovered the probe has put itself in “safe mode” to protect its instruments and systems.

While everything’s still running smoothly, engineers are trying to figure out what happened so they can get the craft back into normal operating mode. It’s uncertain whether Juno accomplished all its planned observations during the flyby which included taking pictures of the Earth-moon system and gathering information about Earth’s magnetic field and auroras. Hopefully we’ll know soon. One thing’s for sure – it remains on course to Jupiter.

Juno flies darn close to Earth today – watch it LIVE

When closest to Earth over South Africa Juno will be invisible in our planet’s shadow. It leaves the shadow and shines by reflected sunlight again just 18 minutes later. Observers and Asia and Europe might see it in small to medium-sized telescopes at the onset of night. Times shown are Pacific Daylight. Credit: Christ Peat / Heavens Above

Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … Juno! The Juno spacecraft will make an extremely close pass of Earth en route to its ultimate goal, the planet Jupiter. At 4:21 p.m. Central Daylight Time the probe will pass just 347 miles (559 km) from the ground while sailing over the southern tip of Africa at the incredible speed of 25 miles per second relative to the sun.

Juno, which spans about one bus length, has large solar arrays to convert sunlight into the electricity it needs to power its instruments. Credit: NASA

The close shave is deliberate – Juno will pick up an additional 16,330 mph of speed as it steals a bit of Earth’s orbital energy during the flyby. NASA’s been using “gravitational assist” since the Mariner 10 flybys of Venus and Mercury in 1973. Outer planet probes Voyager 1 and 2 leapfrogged their way across the solar system thanks to speed boosts from Jupiter, Saturn, and in the case of Voyager 2, Uranus. The method saves time and reduces energy requirements for space missions. Best of all – it’s free!

Juno’s trajectory to Jupiter. Credit: NASA;/JPL

Juno won’t be twiddling its thumbs during the flyby. NASA has programmed it to make a movie of the Earth-moon system showing the Earth spinning on its axis – the first time ever we’ll see our planet rotating from a distance. The craft will also make brief studies of Earth’s magnetosphere, the protective magnetic envelope surrounding the planet.

No one’s sure how bright the spacecraft might become. Most estimates I’ve seen put it around magnitude 9 at closest approach, making it easily visible in a small telescope if you know exactly where to look.18 minutes after its closest approach, Juno leaves Earth’s shadow and comes into view for observers in Europe and Asia, when it will be moving through the constellation Perseus. By then it will have faded to about magnitude 14 but possible glints from its large solar panels could create brighter flares.

When darkness falls over North America Juno will still be in Perseus but a magnitude fainter. That’s a tough find for visual observers with larger scopes but within reach of amateur astrophotographers. Again, these estimates are approximate. Juno could be brighter or dimmer.

The Slooh telescope will track Juno live starting at 8:30 p.m. tonight Central time. Click image to check it out. Credit: Slooh

Since most of us won’t be able to see this faint flyby from our backyards, others have generously come to the rescue. The Slooh telescope in the Canary Islands will broadcast live video of Juno tonight beginning at 8:30 p.m. CDT. Ham radio operators can also say hello to the probe in Morse cod by participating in Say ‘HI’ to Juno!

Amateur astronomer Scott Degenhardt will webcast Juno live from his home in New Mexico during two time slots: 1:45-2:45 a.m. and 4:15–5:15 a.m. tomorrow morning Oct. 10. Scott mentioned in an e-mail that bad weather might be coming, so if he’s offline, you’ll know why.

Learn more about the Juno mission in this video

Once Juno departs the Earth’s vicinity it’s in for a long cruise to Jupiter nearly half a billion miles away. Not until it enters Jupiter orbit in July 2016 will Juno see another planet so close. Click HERE to find out more its mission.

Juno probe to zip just 376 miles from Earth; Mars MAVEN mission a go despite shutdown

As Juno speeds past Earth next week it will pick up an extra 16,000 mph to boost it on its way to the planet Jupiter. The probe arrives at the solar system’s largest planet in July 2016. Credit: Bob King

Next Wednesday Oct. 9, the Juno spacecraft will make an extremely close approach to Earth as part of a gravity assist maneuver to boost to it to Jupiter. The probe was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 on a mission to look deep inside the planet below the swirling clouds that make Jupiter a favorite target for beginning astronomers.

Jupiter is covered in clouds that reach thousands of miles down into its atmosphere. In this artistic view, we’re looking up from between clouds into a clearing. Credit: Ron Miller

Juno will focus on the composition of Jupiter’s core, how much water saturates its lower level clouds, clock wind speeds at great depth and examine the planet’s vast magnetosphere, a bubble of magnetism spun to high speed by Jupiter’s rotation and laced with subatomic particles that buzz like angry bees. Most of particles are spewed by volcanic eruptions from the moon Io and spawn powerful auroras.

After its flyby of Earth, Juno continues cruising toward Jupiter, entering orbit there in the summer of 2016. Credit: NASA

Most spacecraft launched these days are not sent directly to their targets but loop by planets like Earth and Venus to pick up additional speed free of charge. Well, not exactly free. As Juno slingshots by Earth it will gain energy and velocity from the encounter but rob Earth of a tiny bit of its orbital energy. A gravitational assist both changes the direction of a spacecraft and pumps up its speed, saving time and propellant.

Video of Juno’s flyby of Earth on Oct. 9

A gravity assist can speed up a spacecraft if it flies with the movement of the planet or decelerate if it flies against the direction of its movement.

Will we see it? Probably not. The spacecraft’s closest approach occurs while in Earth’s shadow off the southern coast of Africa. The ground-track then heads northeast toward India before turning west to cross southern Europe. Observers there might catch it in binoculars if they know exactly where to look.

The spacecraft buzzes over North America the night of Oct. 9-10. It will be departing Earth’s vicinity at that time and probably be too faint for small telescopes but not for astrophotographers and amateurs with larger scopes.

The Mars MAVEN mission will continue as planned unaffected by the U.S. government shutdown. Credit: Bob King

NASA’s next Mars mission called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) had been put on hold during the U.S. government shutdown. This raised the possibility that it might have missed its launch window (Nov. 18 – Dec. 7) depending on how long it the impasse might continue. But earlier this week it was determined that the mission provided a crucial communications link to help relay signals from Earth to the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, making the spacecraft available for emergency funding. We’re back in business!

MAVENwill begin orbiting Mars next September to study its current climate to shed light out how the planet evolved into its current cold, dry state. Nice to get some good news.

Go for a virtual asteroid ride; seismic activity on 2012 DA14?

Asteroid 2012 DA14, which will pass about 17,200 miles from Earth tomorrow (Fri. Feb. 15) around 1:24 p.m. CST is about 150 feet long or somewhat less than half the length of a football field. Illustration: Bob King using wiki and NASA images

As asteroid 2012 DA14 silently flies toward Earth, how would you like to go along for the ride? Now you can, virtually speaking. NASA has created a simulated display that allows you to accompany the asteroid as it speeds toward the planet. Since the view refreshes every two minutes, you can watch the planet grow larger as the asteroid sweeps in to make its closest approach tomorrow around 1:24 p.m. Central Time. That’s when the real drama will unfold as 2012 DA14 passes just 17,200 miles over Indonesia before speeding back into the depths of space. Click HERE to make the trip.

Although 2012 DA14 won’t impact Earth, the planet’s gravity will leave a potentially strong impression on the asteroid. Besides bending its orbit into a smaller circle with a shorter orbital period during the flyby, it’s possible that the space rock might tremble with tremors or asteroid-quakes.

View from the virtual asteroid tracker looking toward Earth today Feb. 14, 2013 at 1:37 p.m., one day before closest approach. Credit: NASA

“We are going to be looking closely for evidence of seismic activity on 2014 DA14 as it passes by,” says Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at MIT. “This is the first case of an object coming close enough to experience quakes AND where we have enough notice to plan observations.”

The Galileo spacecraft captured this “stretched color” view of asteroid 951 Gaspra in 1991. The red color is caused by solar radiation and cosmic rays weathering of the asteroid’s soil. Credit: NASA

A few years ago Binzel noticed a small group of asteroids that didn’t show signs of “space weathering” from bombardment by cosmic rays and solar radiation over the eons. High-energy particles interact with asteroids’ rocky surfaces and cause their soils to turn dark-red.

After studying their orbits, he discovered that all these “fresh-faced” space rocks had had close encounters with the Earth in the past million years.

“We believe they were ‘shaken up’ by their encounters with Earth,” he says. “Gravitational forces during the flybys can stretch, rattle, and torque these asteroids, causing dark, space-weathered material on the surface to be overturned, revealing the fresh stuff underneath.”

NASA’s Goldstone radar dish in California will have its eye trained on the asteroid during tomorrow’s flyby. The dish sends radio waves at the asteroid and measures their echo or reflection upon return to build up a map of its shape. Credit: NASA

2012 DA14’s crust could shift by an inch or two and possibly release a puff of asteroid dust. MIT postdoc Nick Moskovitz, who works with Binzel, is coordinating observations with worldwide observatories to pin down the color, spin, shape, and reflectivity of the asteroid as it passes by. NASA’s 70-meter Goldstone radar dish will also repeatedly ping 2012 DA14 with radio waves and measure the energy reflected back to create a 3D picture of it. If we’re very fortunate, the dish might even see the effects of seismic activity. Read more on the topic HERE.

Nice video about the flyby from NASA’s ScienceCast

Fly-by-night rocks and dustballs

A good near-Earth asteroid explainer after you get through the commercial

Looks like we all survived the whiz-by of two asteroids moving in unrelated orbits yesterday. 2010 RX30 is about 32-65 feet across and flew some 154,000 or 0.6 the distance of the moon from Earth, while the smaller 2010 RF12 ( 20-46 feet) passed even closer at just 49,000 miles. Despite their closeness, both were very faint objects visually with magnitudes around 15-16. Both were discovered on September 5 by the Catalina Sky Survey based near Tuscon, Arizona. I find it amazing that such tiny objects can be picked up at all. Scientists estimate there are something like 50 million house-sized asteroids orbiting the sun in the vicinity of our planet with an average of one a day passing between us and the moon. From this population, one every ten years would be expected to hit our atmosphere and possibly survive its plunge to the ground in the form of meteorites.

If you’ve got a couple minutes and want to find out what kind of destructive force asteroids of a particular size and consistency have, check out the Impact Calculator. The user-friendly interface lets you choose size, impact angle, speed and more, and then outputs the crater size, depth and magnitude of the quake created. It’s a good way to get to know the dark side of these seemingly innocent star-like objects we watch creep across the night sky with our telescopes.

Comet Hartley 2 photographed through an 8-inch telescope this past weekend. The comet is currently in the evening sky in Andromeda and visible in 6-inch and larger telescopes. By early next month it will be bright enough to see in binoculars. Credit: Michael Jaeger

As long as we’re on the topic of flying rocks, NASA’s Deep Impact probe, the one that flung an 815-lb. hunk of copper into the Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005 in order to study to study the aftermath of the impact, has begun a new mission to study Comet Hartley 2. Like Tempel 1, Hartley 2 is a periodic comet, one that goes around the sun in a relatively short period of time. Hartley, discovered by Malcolm Hartley in 1986, completes an orbit in 6 1/2 years; this fall it will pass near the Earth and become as bright as 5th magnitude during late October and early November, making it an easy binocular comet. Cross your fingers – it might be bright enough to see with the naked eye.

Artist's view of Deep Impact at Tempel 1 in 2005. Comet Hartley 2's core or nucleus is small by cometary standards, measuring only about 1/2 mile across. Comets are small bodies like asteroids but composed of a mixture of dust and ice. Credit: NASA

Since 2005, Deep Impact has been on an extended mission called EPOXI (Extrasolar Planet Observation and Deep Impact Extended Investigation), and its target for the next 79 days is Hartley 2. Last Sunday it beamed its first photo of the comet to Earth, one of more than 64,000 pictures the probe will take during the mission. The flyby and closest approach to the comet will occur on November 4 which turns out to be the same time it’s best viewed here on Earth. We can look forward to seeing closeups of the what’s at the center of all that cometary fuzziness while at the same time following it in our binoculars. Very cool. Scientists will use the craft’s two camera-equipped telescopes for photography and an infrared spectrometer to study the comet’s makeup. In the coming weeks, I’ll provide easy-to-use maps so you can find Comet Hartley 2 for yourself. Read more about the comet HERE.