By Dr. Eileen V. Ryan, Director, 2.4-meter Telescope
Researchers at NM Tech's Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) 2.4-meter telescope facility are busy watching the skies for potentially hazardous asteroids headed our way. The NASA and National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program (called "NEOTech") has NM Tech scientists Drs. Bill and Eileen Ryan studying asteroids and comets that could be on a collision course with the Earth.
This year, there have been an unusual number of asteroids-from the size of a jet aircraft to the size of a bus or car-that have passed very close to the Earth, some much closer to us than the moon. Most of these asteroids were tracked and studied at the MRO 2.4-meter telescope. There is no danger to life on our planet from such close calls, but they are certainly stark reminders of the potential for a direct hit some time in the future.
Tempting to be interpreted as an April Fool's joke, asteroid 2012 EG5 (150 feet wide) skimmed by the Earth on April 1, 2012. During the asteroid's closest approach, it came as near as just over half the distance between Earth and the moon's orbit. Asteroid 2012 EG5 was the third relatively small asteroid to buzz the Earth in seven days. The first object, called asteroid 2012 FP35, came within 96,000 miles of the Earth, and the second asteroid, 2012 FS35, edged even closer, coming within 36,000 miles.
Another notable recent close-approaching asteroid named 2011 DA14 (180 feet wide) was discovered on February 23, 2012 and is due back in our vicinity on February 15, 2013. At that time it will pass within 16,700 miles of the Earth, which is closer than the orbit of some geosynchronous satellites. After such a close pass, Earth's gravity could conceivably alter DA14's orbit to collide with the Earth in the future, but NASA deems that only a remote possibility.
Small, dust-sized particles leftover from asteroid collisions impact our planet every day-over a hundred tons of material. However, the vast majority of this debris harmlessly vaporizes in our atmosphere as "shooting stars", or makes it to the ground as "meteorites". It's the larger objects that have scientists worried. The objective of the NEOTech program is that the more we can scientifically characterize and understand these objects, the better prepared we will be if it is ever necessary to destroy or divert a killer asteroid or comet on a collision course with the Earth. After all, the first line of defense is to know the enemy.
Photo Caption: Close approaching asteriod (center-dot)2005-YU55