Asteroid to just miss Earth on tonight’s flyby


This image made from radar data obtained on Nov. 7, 2011 at 11:45 a.m. PST (2:45 p.m. EST/1945 UTC) and provided by NASA shows asteroid 2005 YU55 when the space rock was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers, from Earth. (AP)

NASA has said there’s no chance 2005 YU55 - the scientific name for the asteroid - will veer off course and strike the planet.

“...it will be no closer than 201,700 miles (324,600 kilometers) or 0.85 the distance from the moon to Earth,” NASA wrote. “The gravitational influence of the asteroid will have no detectable effect on anything here on Earth, including our planet’s tides or tectonic plates.”

The asteroid is known to be 1,300 feet (400 meters) wide. To give you a relative sense, Eric Holthaus at the Wall Street Journal wrote that’s twice the size of American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

William Hooke of the American Meteorological Society said its diameter is “slightly greater than the length of the Herbert C. Hoover Building – the Department of Commerce headquarters, occupying an entire city block of downtown Washington, D.C.”

Space.com compared it to an “aircraft carrier.”

This six-frame movie of asteroid 2005 YU55 was generated from data obtained by NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar on Nov. 7, 2011.

What could happen if an asteroid this massive were to strike Earth?

“It would create a crater two miles wide and release as much energy equivalent to about one third of all the nuclear weapons on earth,” Holthaus said.

Putting it another way, the Post’s Brian Vastag wrote: “...it would explode like 500 nuclear bombs, trigger a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and, if it splashed down in the ocean, generate a 70-foot tsunami...”

For perspective, the asteroid that may have finished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was perhaps 10-20 times bigger and contained 1,000 times the energy of 2005 YU55 the AMS’ Hooke wrote.

What’s the risk that a dangerously large asteroid might collide with the Earth and cause catastrophe in the near future? Low, Vastag reported:

Since a humble start at a single telescope in the 1980s, NASA’s $5 million-per-year asteroid-tracking program has matured to the point where the agency said in September that it has detected more than 90 percent of “planet killer” asteroids, those bigger than one kilometer in diameter. None will hit Earth in the foreseeable future, the agency has said.

Space.com wrote the next time an asteroid as big as 2005 YU55 comes close to Earth will be in 2028.

Will the asteroid by the visibile when it flies by tonight? Only with a high quality telescope. If you happen to own one, BlogPost walks you through the process of trying to catch a glimpse, step by step...

Related: Live chat on on near-Earth asteroids with astronomer Thomas Statler (1:30 p.m. today) | As asteroid flies by, scientists will stare | Asteroid to barely miss contact with Earth

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.

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