Just in case you haven’t been paying attention to the news, there’s an asteroid hurtling toward Earth.
Fortunately, it will miss us — although not by much; as Mark Thompson would put it, a “butt-clenchingly close” 7,500 miles — but even if it did collide with Earth, all indications are that it would burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.
So, at around 1 p.m. EDT today, this chunk of space rock, estimated to be approximately 5-20 meters wide, will make its closest approach over the Southern Hemisphere (roughly over the South Atlantic). But astronomers have already been hard at work to grab a look at 2011 MD before its orbit gets all bent out of shape by the Earth’s gravitational field.
Our very own Mark Thompson was able to catch a glimpse, too, remotely using the 2-meter Faulkes Telescope in Siding Spring, Australia, from a coffee shop in the UK.
“I had a 30 minute slot between 10:30 and 11:00 UTC,” Thompson told me via email. “From looking at the data from the Minor Planet Center it was clear this chap was motoring so I prepared before my slot by noting the coordinates for 5 minute intervals.”
Thompson captured the top photo after chasing the asteroid across the sky (it’s proving to be a difficult target to track). “I was finally successful at 10:45 with a 10second exposure using an SDSSr band filter.”
In another series of photos Mark also tried to image the asteroid in color. However, to do this, red (R), green (G) and blue (B) filters need to be used in turn for separate exposures. After combining the RGB images, as can be seen below, the location of the asteroid shifted, but that was useful too.
“I then wanted to try a color image using combined RGB filters,” Thompson continued. “Not surprisingly due to the very fast motion, around 200 arc seconds per minute, the asteroid shifted between color images being taken leaving me with a red streak, a green streak and a blue one! With this data its possible to calculate the asteroid’s speed.”
Other astronomers have been busy too. Also using the Faulkes Telescope, Nick Howes, Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero tracked the asteroid and assembled this cool animation of its motion:
So, at 1 p.m. EDT today, remember to wave as asteroid 2011 MD buzzes our planet before being flung back into interplanetary space by our planet’s gravitational field.
Image credits: Mark Thompson/Faulkes Telescope (stills), Nick Howes/Ernesto Guido/Giovanni Sostero/Faulkes Telescope (animation).