On Friday, February 15, the Earth is supposed to have its closest encounter with a 150-foot-wide asteroid (the size of half a city block). Well, the closest one that astronomers have known about in advance that is. NASA has identified more than 4,700 asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth.
“We’ve had closer ones but they actually hit us,” says Dr. Humberto Campins, an international expert on asteroids, of Venezuelan descent, and professor at the University of Central Florida. “By studying this asteroid in much more detail, we will be preparing ourselves for one that hits us in the future. The chances that will take place during our lifetime is negligibly small, but impacts have happened in the past, and we should be aware for the future.”
Dr. Campins is hosting a 1pm viewing party of the space rock on Friday, at the University of Central Florida, featuring three experts in the field who will be educating the public about this historic event. The live feeds will be from telescopes in Spain, where the asteroid 2012 DA14 was first discovered last year.
“Asteroids are important, because they are like cosmic fossils,” says Campins who has been studying asteroids and comets for the past three decades. “They tell us about how the solar system formed and how the Earth formed. They also may tell us how organic molecules arrived on Earth, and how life formed from those molecules.”
He also explains they can be hazards as well as resources. For example, materials like platinum can be extracted cheaper than mining it from the Earth.
“In fact, the director James Cameron has a team of investors which will capture an asteroid and mine it for commercial purposes,” says Campins. “As a scientist, I’m delighted. I want to ask them can I have a piece to study it — good science can come out of this.”
He says asteroid 2012 DA14 will be able to be studied from ground-based and radio telescopes that will be sending radio signals to it and the radar will be bouncing back. Dr. Campins says the asteroid’s exact composition is still unknown, but it will be zooming at a very high velocity.
“We don’t know if it’s a single rock or a rubble pile,” he explains. “If it’s a single rock, then it will pass by the Earth and its shape will not change, but if it’s a rubble pile, the close proximity to the Earth could destroy it or break it into pieces.”
He says if an asteroid were to hit the Earth, the amount of devastation would depend on the size of the rock. He also says it only happens every 1,200 years or so.
“One hit the Earth in 1908 in Siberia, and it devastated thousands of acres of forest,” says Dr. Campins. “The shock wave is what hit the forest and flatted trees, but no solid piece or crater was found, because it disintegrated before it hit the ground.”
That is the case because the pressure from the atmosphere is not only heating it up but contributing to any cracks, he says, thus it can disintegrate and turn into dust.
Asteroid 2012 DA 14 is expected to come as close as 17,200 miles to the Earth, which Dr. Campins says is 20 times closer than the moon — closer than weather satellites, but still way above NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
“We are estimating 100 5th graders to come to the event,” says Dr. Campins excitedly about the event on Friday, which is open to the public. “We are actually going to create an artificial asteroid using liquid nitrogen, chocolate and sugar. We’re going to create it right there. It’s a way to illustrate that there are organic molecules you can eat and some are in asteroids. We are adding the elements that an asteroid can have.”
He also adds he is using chocolate because all asteroids look dark to our eye.
“Most are half water ice and half cosmic dust, and they tend to be cold,” says the space scientist. “If you were to pick up a meteorite that just fell – the outside would be hot because of the friction, but the inside would be cold.”
After asteroid 2012 DA 14 passes by, Dr. Campins says he’s eager to return to his regular day job as a teacher and researcher for NASA.
“In 2016, we’re going to launch NASA’s OSIRIS-REx,” he says, explaining the vehicle which will go to an asteroid and pick up a sample and bring it back to earth for study. “We’re going to be bringing back materials with organic molecules which will help us understand the origin and evolution of life on Earth.”