Asteroid to pass close to Earth next week

Asteroid to pass close to Earth next week

Calling all amateur astronomers! Grab your best binoculars and scout out your favorite star-gazing spot, because next week, you’ll have the extremely rare opportunity to watch a very large asteroid make its way past Earth.

At about a third of a mile in size, the asteroid 2004 BL86 is slated to come within approximately 745,000 miles of our planet next Monday, Jan. 26. That may sound like a huge distance, but it’s the closest a space rock will come to Earth until 2027 — and the closest 2004 BL86 will get for at least 200 years — offering scientists an exciting opportunity to get a good look at such a large asteroid without posing any threat to the planet. It's an opportunity for space enthusiasts as well, as the asteroid is predicted to be visible in the Northern Hemisphere, through little more than a small telescope or a quality pair of binoculars.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Deep Space Network and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico plan to observe the asteroid with microwaves, taking sonogram-like radar images of the space rock before and after its trip past Earth in order to learn more about it.

“At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Lance Benner, the principal radar astronomer investigating the asteroid.

Even after 16 years as manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, space veteran Don Yeomans’s excitement about the asteroid offers a clue to just how unique 2004 BL86’s flyby actually is.

“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” Yeomans said. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become a valuable resource for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system.

“There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up,” he said.