Our planet will be getting a visitor later today. Asteroid 2004 BL86 will come within about 745,000 miles of Earth today. No worries though, that’s about three times the distance between Earth and the moon.
While the asteroid poses no threat to Earth, it does give astronomers a rare chance to study a near-Earth asteroid. The next asteroid of similar size won’t come near Earth until 2027.
Two observatories are already planning to track the asteroid as it makes its closest approach. The Goldstone antenna at NASA’s Deep Space Network in California will study the asteroid along with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The two observatories will use microwaves to study the rock and hope to get radar-generated images of the asteroid as it flies past our planet.
“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said Lance Benner, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations of the asteroid. “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”
Today will be a once in a lifetime event for viewing asteroid 2004 BL86. We won’t see it get that close again for “at least the next 200 years” according to Don Yeomans, the retiring manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at JPL. Yeomans spent 16 years as manager.
Spotting the Asteroid
Yeomans says he’ll try to spot the asteroid with his binoculars tonight. That’s right, 2004 BL86 should be visible with binoculars or a telescope. Sky and Telescope Magazine have a handy sky chart showing the path of asteroid 2004 BL86. If you are new to sky observing, your best bet for observing the asteroid will be late tonight (between 12am-1am) when the asteroid passes through the Beehive Cluster.