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A “Near” Miss: Asteroid 2005 YU55

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.” -Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Asteroid 2005 YU55. Credit: Arecibo Observatory/Michael Nolan

It’s easy to forget while going about our daily lives that we’re perched on a spinning mass of magma, rock and water that’s hurtling through space. Around us for billions of light years in all directions are celestial bodies, including planets, stars, moons, galaxies, comets and asteroids.

Today, one of these galactic objects, a 400-meter wide asteroid named 2005 YU55, will soar within a few hundred thousand kilometers of Earth. The asteroid will be nearest – about 201,000 miles away – at 6:28pm EDT. In a universe with vast amounts of space between its celestial bodies, a comet or asteroid this proximate to Earth is considered a near-Earth object (NEO).

The last time an asteroid of similar size came this close was 35 years ago. Though there’s no chance of YU55 plunging it’s spherical body into our tender planet’s crust, nor the possibility of it entering Earth’s atmosphere (at least for the next 100 years), this event can serve as both an opportunity to study NEO’s and as reminder of the continued luck necessary to sustain life on on our planet.

“We firmly believe that these sorts of events have been happening for most of the lifetime of the Earth, about 4.5 billion years,” wrote Scott Fisher, program director in the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation, during a live Internet chat. “In fact, early in the life of the Earth we went through a time that astronomers have named the “Era of Heavy Bombardment” where close passes and massive impacts happened much more frequently then now.”

Though nothing could really stop an asteroid should it be on a collision course with Earth, scientists are studying the heavens and increasingly able to give advance notice.

“Baseball sized object hit the Earth’s atmosphere daily,” wrote Donald Yeomans, NASA project scientist for the Japanese mission to land upon Hayabusa, a near-Earth asteroid, during the live chat. “Volkswagen sized objects hit every few weeks but are too small to cause any ground damage. On average, a 30 meter sized object, the smallest that could cause significant ground damage, would be expected to hit every few hundred years, and a larger object of a kilometer in diameter would not be expected to hit but every few hundred thousand years.”

Again, none of this is likely with the 2005 YU55 since it’s safe orbit has probably been the same since before the dawn of astronomy. What’s more likely, is your chance of watching YU55′s fly by. All you need is a fairly good telescope and to be located on the East Coast this evening.

Perhaps then this event will inspire you as it has with me to seek out a dimly lit patch of earth from which to gaze outwards and contemplate the complexity our universe and the fragility of our planet.

Who else will be watching:

-       NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

-       The Gemini Observatory in Hawaii

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Paul Felix Schott 8:59 pm 11/8/2011

    Luke 21:25
    There will be signs in the Sun, Moon and Stars. On the Earth, Nations will be in anguish and perplexity
    at the roaring and tossing of the sea.

    The time will come soon when all on Earth will look to the Heavens above.

    Lord i Pray that we stay One Nation Under GOD, and United that all
    should be Free to read from the Bible the word of our Lord.

    The wicked will not stop till it is to late for them all if only they
    would read the Bible and get to know Jesus and want to go to Heaven Not Hell.

    All that give their heart to the Lord and Read The Bible
    and tell his Word to others will live forever. In Heaven

    But if from thence thou shalt seek the LORD thy GOD, thou shalt find him,
    if thou seek him with all thy Heart and with all thy Soul.

    May our Lord Jesus Christ and GOD the Father that is in Heaven,
    Guide and Watch over us.

    In this time of TRIBULATION, Strengthen your Faith, and encourage
    all to Pray for their Souls. The Strong in the Word of our Lord will Now
    Help the World and be the disciples of our Lord’s Word.

    Through out History Many have tried to wipe Jesus and the good from our history books.
    Read the Bible Jesus will Bless you more then i can.

    United We Will Always Stand That
    In GOD We Trust
    True Patriots

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    Read The BIBLE
    John 8:12-31
    Mark 10:17-30

    2 Peter 3:10
    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
    in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with
    intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

    November 2, 2011

    Link to this
  2. 2. Joe Bloe 9:01 am 11/9/2011

    In that first comment, Paul Felix Schott has managed to drain all the beauty from the universe and replace it with “god”; a three letter word meaning “I don’t know”.

    Richard Feynman had something to say on that sort of blinkered thinking:

    “It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

    Link to this
  3. 3. AstroDr. 6:29 pm 11/10/2011

    Good article. Just one error that I noted. Robynne Boyd’s quote: “All you need is a fairly good telescope and to be located on the East Coast this evening.” is not correct. The asteroid was visible throughout the entire Western hemisphere. I as well as several other amateur astronomers in Colorado observed 2005 YU55 on Tuesday evening. Reports show widespread observations ranging from Hawaii to the East Coast. It was neat seeing this asteroid slowly moving across the sky in my 11 inch telescope.

    Link to this
  4. 4. AtlantaTerry 8:29 pm 11/10/2011

    Would not a “near miss” actually be an impact?

    Link to this
  5. 5. backman 8:21 am 11/11/2011

    animated images of asteroid 2005 YU55 from Itlay take Nov 09-10

    Paolo Bacci

    Link to this

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