The 5 miles per second rock shooting through the Eastern sky Friday could unlock vast wealth, or spell destruction. The 150-foot wide asteroid 2012 DA14 is the largest to ever be detected passing this close and will provide lessons for space exploration.
“This is a unique opportunity,” Dwayne Brown, a spokesman for Nasa’s science department, told Metro. “This can tell us about asteroid trajectories, how the Sun affects them, and their origin in nature.”
2012 DA14 will pass just 17,000 miles away - within communication satellite orbit - and although it is not considered a threat, it will influence disaster preparation. “If we can better understand the approach, that helps us with an asteroid on collision course,” says Brown, adding that a strategy already exists based on deflection. “You can nudge it onto another course with even a light touch.”
Nasa have made asteroid study a top priority, and an army of robotic telescopes and sky surveyors helped to spot 2012 DA14 in February 2012. It is significant progress given that many asteroids are only seen as, or after, they pass.
Citizen astronomers have key to the advance, and thousands of enthusiasts will be watching the skies Friday. “Some amateur astronomers have observatories that would make a university jealous,” said David Dickinson, editor of the Astroguyz website. “Websites allow you to calculate co-ordinates for accurate location, how to watch and monitor events – and we’re constantly exchanging information live on Twitter.”
Civil society groups are increasingly partners in asteroid exploration and have been heavily involved in the 2016 launch of the OSIRIS-REx satellite, the first mission to mine samples from moving asteroids. 2012 DA14 has an estimated value of $200 billion in precious metals, hinting at a lucrative future in asteroid mining.
Yet over half of all Near-Earth Objects (NEO) remain undetected and a threat. “We need to find objects down to at least 100m, the vast majority of which we haven't found yet,” Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, told Metro. A sudden, catastrophic event remains a possibility.
How to watch
2012 DA14 will be closest at 1924 GMT Friday and will be visible from parts of Europe and Africa. David Dickinson recommends being somewhere as dark as possible with telescope or binoculars and a wide field of vision. Calculate its route beforehand and focus on one position, the asteroid will resemble a shooting star and will be clearest when passing in front of the Moon. Check out Astroguyz.com or b612foundation.org to find out more, or http://www.nasa.gov/ntv to watch live.