Skip to main content

An asteroid is coming, and scientists are excited. Fear not, Earth is safe

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 7:53 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's going to be the closest shave in known history, NASA expert says
  • Asteroid 2012 DA14 is traveling at 17,400 mph
  • Star gazers will likely turn out for a peek in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia
  • Asteroids may be mined in space for their natural resources some day

(CNN) -- Look out for Asteroid 2012 DA14.

It is heading toward Earth at 17,450 miles per hour, according to NASA, and the tug of our planet's gravitational field will cause it to accelerate when it gets here.

But it's not going to strike us, when it passes by on February 15. NASA is adamant about this.

"Its orbit is very well-known," said Dr. Don Yeomans, NASA specialist for near-Earth objects. "We know exactly where it's going to go, and it cannot hit the Earth."

But it will give the Blue Planet the closest shave by any object its size in known history, Yeomans said. Gravity will cause it to fly a curved path, tugging it closer to Earth's surface than most GPS or television satellites.

Asteroid to fly between Earth, moon
The Number: Hazardous asteroids

While the asteroid is moving at a good clip, space rockets have to accelerate to an even higher speed to escape Earth's gravity and make it into space. Though 2012 DA14 will be flying more slowly, its trajectory will keep it from falling to Earth.

Getting a look at 2012 DA14

Star gazers in Eastern Europe, Asia or Australia might be able to see it with binoculars or consumer telescopes. It will not be visible to the naked eye, because it's small, "about half the size of a football field," Yeomans said.

There are millions of asteroids in our solar system, and they come in all dimensions -- from the size of a beach ball to a large mountain, NASA said.

Researchers are looking forward to getting such a close look at an asteroid, as it flies from south to north past Earth, coming as close as 17,200 miles to our planet's surface. NASA will ping it with a signal from a satellite dish for a few days to get a better idea of its makeup.

Astronomers think there are about half a million asteroids the size this one near Earth, NASA said, but less than one percent have been detected.

Twenty years ago, no one would likely have discovered 2012 DA14, Yeomans said. Scientists spotted it nearly a year ago from an observatory in the south of Spain. Today, specialists track asteroids' paths 100 years into future.

They do so less to assess any possible threat of impact with Earth and more to explore what opportunities they offer. "These objects are important for science. They're important for our future resources," Yeomans said.

Opinion: Don't count 'doomsday asteroid' out yet

Asteroids are potential gold mines

Asteroids can be chock full of metals and other materials, which could be mined for use on earth or on space stations. NASA has discussed the possibility of capturing near-Earth asteroids and placing them into Earth's orbit to study them and extract their resources.

At least two start-up companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, plan to mine asteroids and sell the acquired bounty on Earth and in space.

Being able to exploit asteroids' resources would allow humans to fly farther out into the solar system, build stations a long way from Earth and supply them with materials gathered out in space.

Some asteroids, for example, are made of ice, NASA said, which could be used as drinking water for a distant space platform.

What if one like this did hit us?

An asteroid this size passes this close to Earth only every 40 years and collides with it only once every 1,200 years.

If NASA turns out to be wrong about this one not hitting the planet -- and they won't be -- then Asteroid 2012 DA14 would not destroy the world in any case, Yeomans said.

An asteroid made of metal that was about the same size collided with Earth 50,000 years ago, creating the mile wide "Meteor Crater" in Arizona and obliterating everything for 50 miles around, he said.

2012 DA14 is likely made of stone, which would do much less damage.

In 1908 a similar type asteroid entered the atmosphere and exploded over Tunguska, Russia, leveling trees over an area of 820 square miles -- about two thirds the size of Rhode Island.

Not Earth shattering, but you still wouldn't want to live nearby.

More space and science news on CNN's Light Years blog

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 2:18 AM EST, Fri February 8, 2013
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT