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Asteroid makes near-earth flyby

Asteroid makes near-earth flyby

Astronomers at Auckland’s Stardome Observatory and Planetarium will watch with interest this week as a small asteroid whizzes closely past Earth, entering New Zealand skies very early on Saturday morning. It’s definitely not on a collision course, but is certainly of interest because astronomers have never observed such a narrow miss before of an object this size.

Discovered a year ago by astronomers at La Sagra Observatory in Spain, the 45 metre wide asteroid called “2012 DA14", will pass within 27,700 kilometres of the Earth's surface – closer than some telecommunications satellites – while travelling at a speed of around 8 km per second. However, it won’t be visible with the naked eye, binoculars or even most backyard telescopes when it passes through New Zealand skies.

Stardome astronomer Dr Grant Christie will be tracking the asteroid at Stardome from very early on Saturday morning. Through the computerised telescope at Stardome the object will be visible as a faint dot moving amongst a field of stars.

The time of closest approach is 8.25 am, several hours after sunrise, so from New Zealand we can only see it as it is still approaching Earth. The best place to be is Indonesia because it will still be night time there at the time of closest approach and bright enough to be seen in binoculars. Astronomers are also interested to see if its brightness is changing, indicating an irregularly shaped rotating body.

This is classed as a Near Earth Object (NEO) because it occasionally crosses the orbit of the Earth and has the potential to collide with us in the future. However, it is already known there is only minimal risk of this asteroid hitting Earth any time in the next century. Observations from Stardome and many other observatories world-wide are used to keep track of these objects and identify those that may present a danger in the future For those wanting to know where the asteroid will be when it makes its early morning pass, Stardome Astronomy educator David Britten has produced an animation of the southern skies showing the predicted path of the asteroid, available on the Stardome Facebook page, along with an explanatory guide.

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