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Stargazing: No Armageddon, but asteroid will come close

Stargazing by Wayne Harris-Wyrick: One week from today, the Earth will not be destroyed. But an asteroid some 1,300 feet wide will pass close by our planet. Asteroid 2005 YU55 flies inside our moon's orbit, coming to within 201,700 miles.
BY WAYNE HARRIS-WYRICK Published: November 1, 2011
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One week from today, the Earth will not be destroyed. But an asteroid some 1,300 feet wide will pass close by our planet. Asteroid 2005 YU55 flies inside our moon's orbit, coming to within 201,700 miles.

Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said “YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over, at the very least, the next 100 years,” he said. “During its closest approach, its gravitational effect on the Earth will be so minuscule as to be immeasurable. It will not affect the tides or anything else.”

NASA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to launch spacecraft such as Dawn, which recently flew by asteroid Vesta and will visit the largest asteroid, Ceres, in four years, and the Rosetta mission that studied asteroid Lutetia. This time, YU55 is coming to us. And since we are not limited by the cost to launch large instruments on a spacecraft, we can use our best ground-based telescopes to study it.

Although we've had asteroids come this close to Earth before, “We did not have the foreknowledge and technology to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Barbara Wilson, a scientist at JPL. We've known that YU55 was coming to visit for several years now and have had ample opportunity to refine its orbital calculations and prepare our best telescopes to see it. NASA scientists expect to achieve a resolution of 13 feet.

“We're talking about getting down to the kind of surface detail you dream of when you have a spacecraft fly by one of these targets,” said Lance Benner, also from JPL.

At that resolution, JPL astronomers expect to see boulders and craters on the surface. Also, the data collected from Goldstone, Arecibo, and ground-based optical and infrared telescopes are expected to detail the mineral composition of the asteroid.

“This is a C-type asteroid, and those are thought to be representative of the primordial materials from which our solar system was formed,” Wilson said. “This flyby will be an excellent opportunity to test how we study, document and quantify which asteroids would be most appropriate for a future human mission.”

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