EARTH AND ITS inhabitants survived the Mayan Apocalypse that was supposed to occur on December 21, 2012. (Or did it occur and just fizzle with no fanfare?) But potentially disastrous episodes still loom on Earth’s horizon.
This Friday, February 15, 2013, the asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly past Earth in an unprecedented close approach. The event marks the closest-ever known approach by such a large near-Earth asteroid. The rock will travel so close that it will actually pass between the Earth and the moon’s orbit. And the asteroid will actually fly lower than the orbit of most satellites: it will be about 5,000 miles closer to Earth than most satellites.
Asteroid 2012 DA14 is measured at about 150 feet long (or about half the length of a football field) and weighs in at about 190,000 metric tons. NASA scientists assure Earth-goers that the rock cannot hit our planet or any of its satellites. (There is, however, a cosmologically good 1 in 294,000 chance that 2012 DA14 will impact Earth between 2080 and 2109.)
But if it did hit Earth on Friday, the impact would likely cause as much damage as the 1908 “Tunguska Event,” which flattened trees across 825 square miles in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. And were the rock to smash into Earth at a population epicenter, it would mean certain death for the people in its path.
The asteroid will approach Earth through the southern evening sky and pass into the northern morning sky with its closest approach occurring about 12:26 p.m. For most observers in the Western Hemisphere, the asteroid is scheduled to pass during daylight hours and will be too faint to see with the naked eye. The amateur sky watcher might catch a glimpse of the object, but not without a perfectly positioned telescope. The rock is hurtling through space at about 17,450 mph after all. NASA will observe the asteroid’s trajectory by watching the space rock’s infrared spectrum using highly sensitive ground-based telescopes.
The cosmos is an unfathomably large place. It is comforting therefore to know that outer space’s great distances mostly protect Earth from apocalyptic objects. So that you will not likely see asteroid 2012 DA14 is not the point. Rather, simply knowing that a rock large enough to demolish an entire city will invade Earth’s personal planetary space is hair-raising enough.
Trent Latta is an attorney who lives in Kirkland. You can email him at TrentLatta@gmail.com.