Meet Asteroid DA14. Well, I should say, you will be meeting Asteroid DA14 in about a week, when it becomes the closest non-man-made object of its size to be near the Earth in a very long time.
Sigh. And it probably won’t even give Earth a call afterward.
I should point out that my title’s “between us and the moon” is more concise than it is accurate (as the dictates of title text often require). The asteroid won’t necessarily pass between us and the Moon, but it will pass closer to us than the Moon ever does. In fact, it’s going to get closer to us than some of our satellites. At it’s closest point, it’ll be a mere 17,200 miles from Earth, about five thousand miles closer than our satellites that sit in geosynchronous orbit (like GPS satellites) but still further out than, say, the International Space Station. NASA says, however, that this one is definitely, definitely, not going to hit us, and they should know.
The orbit of asteroid 2012 DA14 is well understood – it will not come any closer than 17,150 miles (27,650 kilometers) above Earth’s surface during its flyby on Feb 15, 2013.
The asteroid’s orbit around the sun is roughly similar to that of Earth, and it makes relatively close approaches to our planet’s orbit twice per orbit. But, the 2013 flyby is by far the closest the asteroid will approach our planet for many decades. The next notable close approach to Earth will be on February 16, 2046, when the asteroid will pass no closer than 620,000 miles (1,000,000,000 kilometers) from the center-point of Earth.
At it’s closest point, the DA14 will be above the Indian Ocean, and traveling at about 4.8 miles per second. And if it did hit us, it would not be the extinction event cinema has always hypothesized. DA14 is about half the size of a football field, so it would only cause regional devastation on a scale similar to the Tunguska Event, which flattened 750 square miles of Siberian forest. Yay!
In the meantime, NASA and lots of other space-watching organizations around the world will be studying DA14 extensively to to figure out its spin, composition, and anything else they can glean from it. The asteroid won’t be visible to the naked eye, but folks in Eastern Europe, Asia, or Australia might be able to catch a glimpse of it with binoculars or a telescope, if they know where to look very early in the morning.