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BIG asteroid making close, safe flyby of Earth on Sunday

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, February 1, 2018, 2:27 PM - Heads up! A massive asteroid, at least half a kilometre wide, will be flying past Earth and the Moon on Sunday, February 4. Don't worry, though, we won't need to duck!

On the afternoon of February 4, 2018, at 4:30 p.m. EST, 'potentially hazardous asteroid' 2002 AJ129 will be flying past us, at a distance of about 4.2 million kilometres away. At over 10 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon at its closest point, this will be a completely safe encounter, but an important one for scientists studying these relics of the early solar system.

Discovered just over 16 years ago, on January 15, 2002, this asteroid - formally named (276033) 2002 AJ129 - was labelled as 'potentially hazardous' (PHA), due to its size and how close it gets during its flybys of Earth. Any asteroid that is larger than 140 metres wide, and comes closer to Earth than 7.48 million kilometres (0.05 astronomical units) during any of its close approaches, is added to this category. An astronomical unit is equal to Earth's average distance from the Sun, or 150 million kilometres.

2002 AJ129 is somewhere between 0.5 km and 1.2 km wide, and between the years 1900 and 2200, it has 4 close approaches that are within the 0.05 AU limit, so it easily qualifies.

However, being on NASA's list of PHAs doesn't mean that an asteroid poses any definite threat to us. This asteroid did spend a total of around 18 days on NASA's Sentry Risk table - a list of objects that require special attention, due to their potential (however slim) for a future impact - but it was then removed on Feb 3, 2002, when scientists determined that it had no actual threat of an impact.

Since then, repeated observations of 2002 AJ129 have locked down its orbit so closely that we know that there is no chance the asteroid will impact Earth for the conceivable future.

"We have been tracking this asteroid for over 14 years and know its orbit very accurately," Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a NASA press release. "Our calculations indicate that asteroid 2002 AJ129 has no chance - zero - of colliding with Earth on Feb. 4 or any time over the next 100 years."

Since we're safe from this asteroid, what's the big deal?

This flyby, on Feb 4, will be the closest approach by the asteroid since Feb 6, 1904, when it was just over 3 million km away, and it will be the closest until Feb 5, 2087, when it will be just over 3.7 million km away.

Such a close pass by such a large asteroid gives radio astronomers an excellent opportunity to study the object, in detail, as it whizzes past. Already, the radio telescopes at the Arecibo and Goldstone observatories are scheduled to be pointed at 2002 AJ129 during its time of closest approach. The radio waves generated by these two observatories will be bounced off the asteroid, returning radar signatures, which can be turned into images of this space rock. This being the closest pass of 2002 AJ129 since we started using radar to examine passing asteroids, it will be the best opportunity we have to make these observations.

One date to watch for, in the future, is Feburary 8, 2174. On that day, 2002 AJ129 will pass by at less than twice the distance between Earth and the Moon, so depending on what we're doing at the time, we may be able to visit this asteroid, walk upon its surface, collect samples, or maybe even mine it for resources.

Sources: NASA | Goldstone Observatory | Arecibo Observatory

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