Image: 2005 YU55
NASA / Cornell / Arecibo
This radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 was generated from data acquired in April 2010 by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
By Managing editor
updated 11/4/2011 1:21:28 PM ET 2011-11-04T17:21:28

A huge asteroid about the size of an aircraft carrier will zoom past our planet next week, coming between Earth and the orbit of the moon when it flies by on Tuesday.

The space rock, called asteroid 2005 YU55, poses no threat to Earth but will be observed by excited astronomers around the world. It's about 1,300 feet (400 meters) wide, round and blacker than coal, NASA scientists said.

At its closest point, asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass Earth at a range of about 201,700 miles (324,600 kilometers) on Tuesday at 6:28 p.m. ET. The average distance between the moon and Earth is about 238,854 miles (384,399 kilometers).

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"This is particularly exciting, since it is the first time since 1976 that an object of this size has passed this closely to the Earth," Scott Fisher, a program director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences, said during an NSF webchat organized Thursday by ScienceNow. "It gives us a great (and rare!) chance to study a near-Earth object like this. In fact, we have several telescopes set up and ready to observe this event already."

Those telescopes include the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico and several NASA Deep Space Network instruments.

Astronomers plan to use the telescopes to snap radar images of asteroid 2005 YU55 similar to one taken by the Arecibo observatory in April 2010, when the space rock flew within 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) of Earth. Tuesday's flyby, however, is much closer and should allow astronomers to snap more detailed images of the asteroid.

Observatories in Hawaii will also attempt to take spectroscopic measurements of the asteroid to analyze its composition, researchers said.

As its name suggests, asteroid 2005 YU55 was discovered in 2005 and orbits the sun in an elliptical path that extends from inside the orbit of Venus to just outside the orbit of Mars, scientists said. The asteroid completes one trip around the sun every 15 months.

One observatory that will not be watching the asteroid is NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, but only because of the asteroid's speed.

"Thousands of amateur and professional astronomers will observe this object near its closest approach to Earth. However, it is moving too fast on the sky for Hubble to observe it," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The asteroid will pose a challenge for amateur astronomers because it will be faint and fast-moving. A small telescope with a mirror no smaller than 6 inches (15 centimeters) is required to spot it, NASA officials said.

Image: Orbital pass
NASA / JPL-Caltech
This chart shows the asteroid's course past Earth and the moon, with orbital paths.

The asteroid's coordinates for any given time are available at the JPL Solar Systems Dynamics website.

No chance of hitting Earth
Yeomans, Fisher and other astronomers have stressed that the public should not be concerned about asteroid 2005 YU55 impacting Earth or causing any kind of gravitational effects on our planet during the flyby. The space rock is much too small to influence life on Earth from its position in space and its chances of actually hitting the planet are nil.

"There is no reason to worry about YU55 getting caught up in the gravity of the earth," Fisher said. "Through our observations of the object, we know that there is no chance of it impacting either the earth or the moon for at least the next 100 years."

Check JPL's website for an animated chart of the asteroid's path past Earth.

If you snap a photo of asteroid 2005 YU55 during its Nov. 8 flyby of Earth and would like to share it with Space.com, send the image and your observing comments to Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

You can follow Space.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.

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Video: Asteroid to pass earth closer than the moon

  1. Transcript of: Asteroid to pass earth closer than the moon

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And an early heads up. You might want to look up next Tuesday, when an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier passes closer to the Earth than the moon is. Now, while scientists say it'll be a "clean miss" in their words, despite passing closer than anything has in decades, a Purdue scientist did say if it did hit us and landed in the ocean, say, it would cause a 7.0 earthquake and tsunami waves 70 feet high.

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