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Earth set for close encounter with an asteroid on Sunday

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Sep 6, 2014, 14:25 UTC

Sen—A small asteroid is set to pass safely very close to Earth tomorrow, Sunday, 7 September, coming to around one tenth the distance of the Moon.

The asteroid, designated 2014 RC, was initially discovered on 31 August by the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona, and independently detected the following night by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope, located on the summit of Haleakalā on Maui, Hawaii.

Additional follow-up observations by the Catalina Sky Survey and the University of Hawaii 88-inch (2.2-metre) telescope on Mauna Kea confirmed the orbit of 2014 RC. 

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This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2014 RC past Earth on 7 September, 2014. Times indicated on the graphic are Universal Time. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Based on current calculations, at the time of closest approach the asteroid will be roughly over New Zealand at about 2:18 p.m. EDT (11:18 a.m. PDT / 18:18 UTC). From its reflected brightness, astronomers estimate that the asteroid is about 60 ft (20 metres) in size. 2014 RC will be approximately one-tenth the distance from the centre of Earth to the Moon, or about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometres).

The asteroid's apparent magnitude at that time will be about 11.5, rendering it unobservable to the unaided eye. Amateur astronomers in the southern hemisphere might glimpse the fast-moving asteroid, through telescopes, as it passes above New Zealand, crossing the constellations of Pictor and Puppis, before fading rapidly in the space of a few hours.

In the northern hempisphere it will be magnitude +14 during the early morning hours of Sunday morning, but the asteroid will be hard to spot in southern Aquarius because of low altitude and an almost full moon.

Both the The Slooh Community Observatory and The Virtual Telescope Project will be hosting webcasts beginning on September 6 and featuring live images of the asteroid.

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This graphic depicts the orbit of asteroid 2014 RC around the sun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2014 RC will pass below Earth and the geosynchronous ring of communications and weather satellites orbiting about 22,000 miles (36,000 km) above our planet’s surface.  While this celestial object does not appear to pose any threat to Earth or satellites, its close approach creates a unique opportunity for researchers to observe and learn more about asteroids.

Nick Howes, an astronomer working with the UK's Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, told Sen: "2014 RC is yet another example of why both the amateur and professional community need to throw as much effort as possible in to the detection of NEO and PHA objects. This is a Chelyabinsk-sized lump, which, as we saw with that impact event, in February, 2012, can cause damage.  

"Tracking and securing good orbital data on these objects will give us a better understanding of them, but it's also a good heads up to the world yet again that new objects are constantly being found, and one day, one of them, possibly large enough to do real damage, may catch us unaware."

While this asteroid will not collide with Earth, its orbit will bring it back to our planet's neighbourhood in the future.  The asteroid's future motion will be closely monitored, but no future threatening Earth encounters have been identified.