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Sky watchers make cool movie of asteroid

Arrow points out asteroid 2002 NY40.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A rare asteroid that passed close enough to be seen with binoculars was captured in an amazing digital movie, scientists said this week.

The bright boulder, an estimated 0.5 miles (800 meters) across, sped into the cinematic view of two Yale University students using a telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

The digital film, a series of still images, tracks the asteroid known as 2002 NY40 overnight August 15-16, two days before it passed within 330,000 miles (530,000 kilometers) of Earth, or slightly farther than the distance to the moon.

The short movie follows the asteroid for two hours as it zips through the constellation Aquarius, during which it passed through a space in the sky equivalent to the radius of the moon.

The students, Brandy Heflin and Bing Zhao, were using the 0.9-meter telescope to look at exotic binary stars when they decided to train the lens on the asteroid.

The unplanned observations "took me a bit by surprise, but we want to encourage students to take the initiative, and they did a very nice job," said Yale astronomer Charles Bailyn, a mentor to the students.

Check out the full movie of asteroid 2002 NY40 
National Optical Astronomy Observatory 

"There is ... some real science to be gleaned from these observations, in terms of brightness fluctuations and the rotational period of the asteroid," he said.

At its brightest, 2002 NY40 was 16 times dimmer than the faintest star visible with the naked eye, but for an asteroid it was quite a shiner.

Space boulders are usually difficult to spot because they are mostly black-like charcoal, according to NASA's Don Yeomans, who manages the space agency's Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

And bright flybys like this one happen about once every five decades, he said.

Astronomers first spotted the space rock July 14, using the one-meter LINEAR (Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research) telescope in New Mexico.

Current calculations suggest there is little risk of a collision with 2002 NY40 for at least decades, said Jon Giorgini, a JPL radar researcher.

Additional data from the August flyby will help astronomers project the asteroid's orbital path for hundreds of years.




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