In the 2014 disaster film Asteroid versus Earth (NOW streaming on peacock!), astronomers discover a wave of impactors on a collision course with our planet. With an extinction-level threat looming, very little time, and even fewer options, Earth’s heroes must act quickly or witness the destruction of our species.
In the real world, it’s unlikely that a killer asteroid (or wave of asteroids) could sneak up on us without us noticing. There are organizations all over the world, including NASA Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), who are responsible for identify, describe and track near-Earth objects that could pose a threat to all or part of the planet. Recently, astronomers closely watched a passing asteroid as 2011 AG5 passed close to Earth about 1.1 million miles away. It’s far enough (about five times the distance from here to the Moon) that it poses no threat to us, but it was close enough that astronomers jumped at the chance to study it from afar. little closer.
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On February 3, 2023, the asteroid known as 2011 AG5 made its closest approach to Earth, slowly rocking from side to side as it passed. Astronomers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California tracked and observed the asteroid using the Goldstone Solar System Radar, a 230-foot (70-meter) dish in Barstow, California , and have recovered incredible images at a distance of over a million miles.
The asteroid was first discovered in 2011, at which point it briefly made headlines when initial calculations showed a low probability of it impacting Earth. Further sightings ruled out an impact in the near future and soon AG5 exited the news cycle. While the public may have forgotten about this lone space rock, astronomers certainly haven’t. Instead, they waited patiently for him to return.
Despite the asteroid’s incredible distance from Earth, astronomers were able to resolve an impressive level of detail, including a concavity in one of the asteroid’s hemispheres and tiny surface features only a few feet across. long. They also determined that the asteroid makes a head-first fall every nine hours and has a surface as black as charcoal. Perhaps the most striking detail is the asteroid’s unusual shape.
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Asteroids have too little mass to pull themselves into a sphere under their own gravity, but they tend to prefer squarer shapes to elongated ones. For some reason, 2011 AG5 either didn’t get the memo or threw it in the trash. Astronomers noted that this asteroid is one of the most elongated they have ever seen, measuring about 1,600 feet (500 meters) long and 500 feet (150 meters) wide, measurements roughly comparable to the 54th tallest world building.
As well as providing a striking close-up of a distant asteroid, the measurements also covered 2011 AG5’s orbit around the Sun. Astronomers have calculated an orbit of 621 days, ensuring that over enough cycles, Earth and 2011 AG5 are destined to cross paths again. According to our models, the next close approach will be in 2040 when 2011 AG5 passes within 670,000 miles of Earth on its way around the Sun.
There is no risk of the asteroid impacting Earth at this time, or at any time in the foreseeable future, but its passage in 2040 will give us another opportunity, even closer this time, to spy on a cosmic object which has just passed.
Tired of hearing when interactions with asteroids are going well? Discover Asteroid against Earth, streaming now on Peacock!
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