Video: Asteroid aims for Earth, swings and misses

  1. Closed captioning of: Asteroid aims for Earth, swings and misses

    >>> on top of all this other awful news we have been covering, by the way, we came awfully close to being hit by an asteroid. believe it or not, a space rock , a big 1 , picture an air stream mobile home , passed closer to the earth than the moon is just past dinner time last night. in space terms, it was close enough to muss up your hair. luckily, it was a swing and a miss. the asteroid was named 2009 bd, or as some astronomers called it, what the heck is that? it's now way out to space, and they assure us, if it would have made contact, it wouldn't have done much damage.

updated 6/2/2011 11:37:47 PM ET 2011-06-03T03:37:47

An asteroid the size of a small motorhome zoomed near Earth on Wednesday night, coming closer to us than the moon ever does.

The 23-foot-long (7-meter) space rock, named 2009 BD, came within 215,000 miles (346,000 kilometers) of Earth at around 8:51 p.m. ET. The moon's average distance from us is about 239,000 miles (385,000 kilometers).

2009 BD never threatened to hit Earth on this pass, researchers said. But even if the asteroid had slammed into us, it wouldn't have been a big deal.

"2009 BD is a small object, 7 meters, and poses no threat," scientists with NASA's Asteroid Watch program tweeted yesterday. "Rocky objects this size would break apart in our atmosphere and cause no damage." [ Photos of Asteroids in Deep Space ]

The asteroid's small size also made it a tough target for skywatchers. A large telescope was necessary to see it on Wednesday night, researchers said.

Sticking around for a while
After the close pass, 2009 BD didn't recede into the depths of space, like most asteroids do after such encounters. Rather, it is continuing to stick close to Earth, stalking our planet on its trip around the sun. In fact, the space rock will remain within 10 lunar distances of us for the next month or so, researchers said.

That's because 2009 BD is no ordinary asteroid. It's what astronomers call a "co-orbital object," meaning its path around the sun roughly parallels that of Earth. Just where such objects come from is an intriguing question, with some researchers speculating that they may be pieces ejected from the moon.

So 2009 BD will hang around for a while, periodically sidling up relatively close to Earth. The probability that it will ever actually hit us is extremely remote; the latest NASA calculations peg it at around 1 in 50,000.

Image: 2009 BD
This NASA orbital diagram shows the track of the asteroid 2009 BD in shades of blue. The space rock came close to Earth but was not on a collision course.

While 2009 BD's orbit is somewhat unusual, its recent proximity to Earth isn't. NASA scientists have estimated that tiny asteroids probably pass between Earth and the moon on an almost daily basis. Most are just too small to be detected.

Space rocks as big as washing machines typically fall into Earth's atmosphere every month or so, but most of them burn up before reaching the ground, researchers say.

Learning about the hazard
Of course, nobody on Earth wants to be caught unawares by an impending impact with a big, dangerous space rock. So NASA and other astronomers routinely scan the skies for asteroids or comets that may be an impact threat to Earth.

NASA is also taking more active measures to learn about potentially troublesome space rocks.

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The agency recently announced, for example, that it's launching a sample-return mission called OSIRIS-Rex to the asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2016. A probe will send pieces of the space rock home; they should reach Earth in 2023.

Scientists think these samples will contain pristine organic compounds, carbon-based molecules that are the building blocks of life as we know it. Studying these asteroid bits could shed light on the possibility that life on Earth was seeded by an asteroid strike, as some researchers believe.

However, 1999 RQ36 is also potentially dangerous, with about a 1-in-1,000 chance of striking Earth in 2182. That impact would likely not be trivial, since the asteroid is 1,900 feet wide (579 meters wide) — as big as six football fields.

Studying 1999 RQ36 and its movements up-close could help scientists refine their understanding of its orbit. This information could help them get a better handle on the space rock's trajectory, and possibly understand how to mitigate or prevent a potential Earth impact, researchers said.

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Interactive: All about asteroids

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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