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Asteroid YU55 headed toward Earth: First images released

November 7, 2011 |  6:03 pm

 Asteroid_againAn asteroid about the size of an aircraft carrier was hurtling toward us Monday night, following an orbit that will take it within 201,700 miles of Earth, as measured from the center of the planet.

As has been much reported, that's closer to us than the moon is.

Scientists at NASA have been tracking the asteroid, named YU55, on a daily basis since Friday. On Monday, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific, they took the above picture of the asteroid using a 70-meter radio telescope.

The photo, shot from NASA's Deep Space Network in Goldstone, Calif., might be a little more exciting if it were a bit less pixelated. But we can forgive the fuzziness -- after all, the asteroid was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, from Earth when the image was taken.

Scientists will continue to take more photos of the space rock as it approaches Earth.

Despite being relatively large and coming relatively close to the Earth, the asteroid will still not be visible to the naked eye.

Part of the reason YU55 is so interesting to the scientific community is because similar asteroids played a major role in our planet's past -- and they have the potential to play a major role in the future of humankind.

Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, told The Times that asteroids colliding with Earth in the extremely distant past may have been responsible for bringing the water and carbon material that has made life on the planet possible.

And in the future, scientists say, these asteroids may serve as watering holes and fueling stations for interplanetary travel.

"We may one day be able to mine asteroids, and if we start colonizing the solar system, they will be our fueling stations," scientist Marina Brozovic said in an interview. She's a member of the JPL Goldstone radar team tracking the asteroid.

You won't be able to see YU55 without a telescope, but be on the lookout for pictures of what scientists will be seeing.

"It's really quite an opportunity," Yeomans said. "It's not very often that something this good gets this close."

-- Deborah Netburn

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Image: This radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 was obtained on Nov. 7, 2011, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific (2:45 p.m. Eastern), when the space rock was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers, from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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