Huge as­ter­oid to pass Earth on Christ­mas Eve

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL -

In a new twist to the old song, it’s Santa Claus who had “bet­ter watch out” on Christ­mas Eve, as he shares the night sky with a huge as­ter­oid that will make its clos­est pass to Earth at about the same time the jolly old fel­low is making his an­nual de­liv­er­ies.

Ac­cord­ing to EarthSky, As­ter­oid 163899 – also known as 2003 SD220 – will pass at a safe dis­tance of about 6,787,600 miles (11 mil­lion km) from our planet.

It will be so far away that only pro­fes­sional and ad­vanced ama­teur as­tronomers are likely to cap­ture op­ti­cal im­ages of this gi­ant space rock.

The Christ­mas Eve as­ter­oid isn’t a newly dis­cov­ered ob­ject. Its name – 2003 SD220 – in­di­cates its dis­cov­ery year. The Low­ell Ob­ser­va­tory Near- Earth Ob­ject Search (LONEOS) pro­gramme in Flagstaff, Ari­zona dis­cov­ered the as­ter­oid on Septem­ber 29, 2003.

The large size of this as­ter­oid is one of its most no­table fea­tures. Early es­ti­mates sug­gested a size of be­tween 0.7 miles and 1.5 miles (1.1 km to 2.5 km), but the size es­ti­mate was re­vised af­ter re­cent radar ob­ser­va­tions from the Arecibo tele­scope in Puerto Rico. The new ob­ser­va­tions sug­gest the as­ter­oid is about 1.25 miles (2 km) long.

The roughly ob­long as­ter­oid is thought to have a very slow ro­ta­tion of about one week.

While some other as­ter­oids such as 2015 TB145 (the Hal­loween as­ter­oid) and 2004 BL86 (Jan­uary 2015) were vis­i­ble us­ing 8 tele­scopes, the Christ­mas Eve as­ter­oid will be much more dif­fi­cult to see be­cause of its dis­tance. As­tronomers are nev­er­the­less al­ready ob­serv­ing this as­ter­oid us­ing ra­dio tele­scopes and bounc­ing ra­dio sig­nals from the space rock’s sur­face.

The Arecibo Ob­ser­va­tory in Puerto Rico stud­ied as­ter­oid 2003 SD220 from De­cem­ber 3 to 17, while the Gold­stone An­tenna in Cal­i­for­nia is analysing the space rock from De­cem­ber 5 to 20.

The as­ter­oid will make its ap­proach to Earth on De­cem­ber 24, 2015, but will re­turn in 2018, NASA as­tronomer and as­ter­oid ex­pert Lance Ben­ner said in a Gold­stone radar ob­ser­va­tions plan­ning doc­u­ment.

The im­mi­nent ap­proach is the first of five en­coun­ters by this ob­ject in the next 12 years when it will be close enough for a radar de­tec­tion.

2003 SD220 is on NASA’s NHATS list of po­ten­tial hu­man-ac­ces­si­ble tar­gets, so ob­ser­va­tions of this ob­ject are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant.

The Near-Earth Ob­ject Hu­man Space Flight Ac­ces­si­ble Tar­gets Study (NHATS) is a pro­gramme de­vel­oped to iden­tify those near-Earth ob­jects that may be well-suited for fu­ture hu­man-space-flight ren­dezvous mis­sions.

EarthSky in­di­cates that al­though this is a huge as­ter­oid, there is no dan­ger of a fu­ture col­li­sion. The or­bit of as­ter­oid 2003 SD220 is well known and NASA has ver­i­fied that the space rock will not pass at any dan­ger­ous dis­tance dur­ing the next two cen­turies.

Re­ports from me­dia houses suggest­ing that this as­ter­oid may cause earthquakes are mis­lead­ing and in­cor­rect, EarthSky states.

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