Visit to an asteroid
An artist's rendition of NASA's proposed future journey to an asteroid like 2005 YU55. Image: FlyingSinger/Flickr/CC BY

A black asteroid, described as “the size of an aircraft carrier,” streaked past the Earth Tuesday evening. Passing closer to us than the moon, the massive object posed no threat. It did, however, afford scientists a unique closeup glimpse at one of these celestial bodies. It was the largest object to pass that close to our planet since the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.

Visible only with telescopes

The asteroid reached its closest point at about 6:28 p.m. EST Tuesday. Though not visible with the naked eye, the 1,300-foot-wide asteroid appeared as a faint streak of light on the average home telescope. But at only 201,000 miles away, the object lit up the powerful radar telescopes at NASA.

Scientists expect surprises

NASA’s images of the object — dubbed 2005 YU55 — were compiled to create a video animation of the event. NASA radar astronomer Lance Benner described the video:

“The animation reveals a number of puzzling structures on the surface that we don’t yet understand. To date, we’ve seen less than one half of the surface, so we expect more surprises.”

Will return in 2075

The data revealed so far has allowed scientists to track YU55′s trajectory for the next 75 years. It is due to buzz past the Earth again in 2075 and will shave past Venus in 2029.

YU55 was discovered in 2005 by University of Arizona scientist Robert S. McMillan. He said the space rock once resided in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and was likely sent on its own course because of a nudge from Jupiter’s gravitational field.

“We detect thousands of asteroids in any clear night, but one in a thousand has a motion different from those in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter,” he said.

No danger to the Earth

Scientists say that YU55 poses no threat to the Earth, even on its next pass in 64 years. However, if an object its size were to strike our planet, according to Purdue University professor Jay Melosh, it would leave a crater four miles wide. If it were to land in the ocean, tsunami tidal waves 70 feet high would be generated.

Asteroid venture planned

Apart from its size, YU55 is one of the more common types of asteroids. It is carbon-rich and may contain frozen water and useful metals that could be harvested by future space travelers. With the space shuttle program discontinued, NASA’s next plan — targeted for 2025 — is a manned venture to an asteroid.

Don Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, said: “This would be an ideal object.”


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