Feb 8, 2013 10:25 AM by Samantha Ptashkin

Asteroid half the size of football field heading toward earth

TUCSON- An asteroid that weighs about a quarter of a million pounds is traveling toward earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour.

"It was discovered almost exactly a year ago and very quickly astronomers realized it was going to make this close approach," says UA Asteroid Expert Carl Hergenrother.

Close is a relative term here. Hergenrother says at its closest, the asteroid will be about 17,200 miles from earth on Friday, February 15.

He says while asteroids of this size typically approach earth about every 40 years, up until now astronomers haven't had the technology to see them. "What is special about this object is it's the closest object of that size that has come to the earth that we've ever known about it," Hergenrother says.

NASA will be using a radar telescope to look at how fast the asteroid is rotating, what shape it is and what it's made up of.

Hergenrother says the information can help astronomers learn more about the origin of life, as well as how to prevent an asteroid from hitting earth in the future. "We know an object of this size should hit the earth once every thousand years or so," Hergenrother says.

The last time it happened was in 1908 over Siberia. "And what happened there is the asteroid actually never hit the ground, but just exploded in the atmosphere and leveled a region of forest that's equivalent to about four or five times the area of Tucson," Hergenrother says.

He says astronomers have discovered most of the asteroids that could potentially destroy civilization and they are tracking them. "The key is to discover it years in advance, 10, 20, 30 years before an impact and then one way you can stop is just by slowly nudging it in its orbit," Hergenrother says.

So the big question, will we be able to see the asteroid from here in Tucson? Hergenrother says it will be closet to earth at 12:24pm Tucson time, but unless you're an amateur astronomer with a long telescope, you won't see it.

People who live in Eastern Europe, Asia, or Australia have the best chance at catching a glimpse, with binoculars or a regular telescope.

And Hergenrother says not to worry if you miss out. In 2029 a 1,000 foot long asteroid will get as close as 20,000 miles from earth and it will be bright enough to see without a telescope.


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