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Asteroid to pass close to Earth today

November 8, 2011 | 11:19 am

Asteroid to pass near Earth
A 1,300-foot-wide asteroid hurtling through space will make its closest approach to Earth Tuesday at 3:28 p.m. PST, whizzing inside the moon’s orbit but not close enough to endanger the planet, according to NASA officials.

The giant space rock is being tracked by a team of NASA scientists at the Deep Space Network antenna in the Mojave Desert outside of Barstow, as well as the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico.

The asteroid, named 2005 YU55, will come no closer than 201,000 miles to Earth, the nearest an asteroid this big has come to the planet since 1976.

It will not be visible to the naked eye, but professional and amateur astronomers may be able to see it with a telescope.

The flyby allowed scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to blast the rock with a beam of microwaves, revealing its ridges, craters and boulders to a radio telescope and providing enough information about its speed and trajectory to allow JPL officials to plot its course for the next 64 years.

Lance Benner, JPL's lead scientist on the project, said the data show that the asteroid will have another close encounter with Earth in 2075, and skim close to Venus in 2029.

"There's no risk of it hitting us, but we've got to continue to monitor it,'' Benner told reporters at the Mojave Desert site on Monday.

The close proximity gives researchers a rare opportunity to study the physical characteristics of an asteroid, adding to the understanding of bodies floating in space and offering a glimpse, perhaps, of the forces that created the universe, Benner said.

NASA has identified more than 8,000 "near-Earth" asteroids, including more than 400 that are at least a half-mile wide. Thus far, none of them is classified as a threat.

The public can follow events via the @AsteroidWatch or at the JPL website.


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Photo: Gary Bury, left, and Robert Haroldsson of the Deep Space Network discuss the 230-foot-wide antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Center at Fort Irwin, which is tracking an asteroid as it hurls past Earth. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times