Fast-moving asteroid will pass close to Earth Super Bowl Sunday

Composite image of football field and incoming asteroid | Photo by Andrew Vec, iStock, Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — This year’s Super Bowl Sunday will have an added bonus likely not on anyone’s list of Super Bowl predictions — a large asteroid making a close flyby on game day.

Asteroid 2002 AJ129 will make a close approach to earth at 2:30 p.m. MST Sunday. At its closest, it will be 2.6 million miles from earth, or 10 times the distance between the Earth and the moon, according to a news report by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“Anything within the orbit of the moon is very close. Twenty times the distance is a no-concern zone, and this one is 10 times the distance of the moon, which is right in the middle of where scientists start worrying,” Mark Shelton of the St. George Astronomy Group told St. George News, “but this one is not on a collision course with Earth.”

Although Asteroid 2002 AJ129 is categorized a “potentially hazardous asteroid,” a classification given to any asteroid larger than about 460 feet in diameter that comes closer than 4.6 million miles to Earth, it does not pose an actual threat of colliding with the planet on game day, or on any other day in the foreseeable future.

“We have been tracking this asteroid for over 14 years and know its orbit very accurately,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL, according to its report. “Our calculations indicate that asteroid 2002 AJ129 has no chance – zero – of colliding with Earth on Feb. 4 or any time over the next 100 years.

The asteroid will fly by Earth during this year’s Super Bowl pregame festivities. By kickoff, it will be 134,000 miles farther along on its journey through the solar system.

Asteroid 2002 AJ129 orbit during flyby when the asteroid will be no closer than 10 times the distance between Earth and the moon Sunday afternoon | Image courtesy of NASA, St. George News

The asteroid is slightly less than one-half mile across and is moving at 67,000 mph, Shelton said, while a typical asteroid passing through the solar system moves at 57,000 mph. During the flyby, that speed will increase to 76,000 mph at its closest approach to earth, an increase in velocity caused by the asteroid’s orbit that comes within 11 million miles from the sun.

Objects generally move slower in the solar system and speeds increase significantly as objects move through interstellar space.

Although the asteroid is designated as a potentially hazardous, even larger rocks have made relatively close flybys, including Asteroid Florence, an object more than 2 miles across, or four times larger, which passed through at a distance 18 times farther than the distance between the Earth and the moon in September 2017.

In October a bus-size rock passed within 54,000 miles of Earth, and while much smaller than Asteroid 2002 AJ129, it came within the altitude range of communications and GPS satellites rotating around Earth.

Fun asteroid facts

Asteroids are made of rock, metals and other elements, and there are millions of them in the solar system, ranging in size from hundreds of miles across to several feet across, according to the University of Arizona.

Even so, if all of the asteroids in the solar system were pulled together, they would fit in the Earth’s moon, with room to spare.

Most asteroids orbit the Sun in the asteroid belt, more than 19 million miles wide between Jupiter and Mars, moving or tumbling erratically in elliptical orbits. Scientists believe more than 150 of these space rocks have a small companion moon, or even two moons.

Many asteroids seem to have been captured by a planet’s gravity and then become moons, including two of Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos, along with most of the moons rotating around outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The average surface temperature of a typical asteroid is minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and these chunks of rock have remained basically unchanged for billions of years, allowing scientists a glimpse into the early solar system.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.


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