“Pay no attention to that fast-moving asteroid...”

One of my Astrobiology instructors (Eric M. Wilcots) began class this past Monday with a slide labeled “Pay no attention to that fast-moving asteroid...“1 Prof. Wilcots was talking about Asteroid 2012 D14 which will make an extremely close approach to Earth this Friday, February 15, 2013. And ultimately his point was that although 2012 D14 will pass within a mere 17,200 miles of Earth’s surface,2 it will not hit Earth or bring about a Bruce Willis level disaster.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

For the record, 2012 D4 isn’t even that large — astronomers estimate it is only about 45 meters (or about 150 feet) across, with an estimated mass of about 130,000 metric tons. So even if things had gone differently and it had ended up on a collision course with Earth (which, once again, IT’S NOT!), it wouldn’t have caused any Earth-shattering,3 civilization-ending event.4

This asteroid flyby won’t be visible to the naked eye (and the nearest portion of the flyby will occur roughly over Australia), but you can watch the entire event live on the Clay Center Observatory’s Ustream channel. Clay Center Observatory will offer real-time, high-definition video — weather permitting — from Friday 5:00 PM Milwaukee time (6:00 PM EST; 22:00 UTC) until 3:00 AM Saturday morning (4:00 AM EST; 9:00 UTC on February 16).

While you’re waiting for Friday’s live video, here’s an animation created by NASA JPL showing what the flyby might look like from the asteroid’s point of view:

What does a Near Earth Object (NEO)5 have to do with Astrobiology? In the past, an NEO impact on the Earth was responsible for at least one mass extinction6 event — the impact 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs and many other species.7 But in addition to ending life, NEOs also appear to play a role in making planets and moons more hospitable to life. Asteroid and comet impacts can deliver organic molecules and water to a potentially habitable world, increasing (we think) the likelihood that world can support life.

How’s that for something to ponder while asteroid 2012 D14 zips past on Friday evening?

  1. That line is itself a reference to the classic quote “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” from the film The Wizard of Oz. []
  2. The asteroid will actually pass between Earth and our geosynchronous communications satellites, which orbit 23,000 miles above the Earth. []
  3. Or as Marvin the Martian was so fond of asking Bugs Bunny, “Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering kaboom.” []
  4. Asteroid 2012 D14 is roughly in the same size category as the object (believed by many scientists to have been a comet nucleus) that slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere over Tunguska, Russia on June 30, 1908. The Tunguska event killed wildlife and flattened trees in that remote area of Siberia. So an impact/explosion from an equivalent sized asteroid still could do a significant amount of damage if it occurred over a major city or populated area. But (just to keep pounding this point home) there is no evidence that an asteroid, comet or anything else big is going to impact the Earth anytime in the foreseeable future. So relax, okay? []
  5. Near Earth Objects are defined as objects (typically asteroids) whose orbit crosses the orbit of Earth. There are estimated to be a few thousand NEOs, including 2012 D14. []
  6. A mass extinction occurs when a significant percentage of life on Earth (or some other planet) becomes extinct in a very short period of time. []
  7. Based on the fossil record, the impact that killed the dinosaurs also caused 99% of all other plant and animal species on Earth to become extinct. []

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