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Instead of coming back on December 21, 2012 – the infamous apocalyptic date – the newly discovered asteroid 2012 DA14 is not expected to return around February 15, 2013. For now, humanity can breathe easy.
A group of amateur astronomers working at Observatorio Astronómico de La Sagra (La Sagra Sky Survey), located in the Andalusia Mountains of southeast Spain, discovered the asteroid a month ago, on February 22. The group accidently spotted it in an area of the sky where asteroids are not generally seen, and was only able to detect it when it flew by the Earth at a range of seven times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. 2012 DA14 was difficult to notice because of its small size; it has a diameter of around 50 meters (150 feet).
Come February 15, 2013, 2012 DA14 fly past 24,000 km (15,000 miles) away, much closer than most of our commercial satellites orbit the Earth. One would be able to view it with binoculars, but at that distance, the asteroid would not even skim the atmosphere, let alone hit the Earth.
Phil Plait, former Hubble Space Telescope member and astronomy teacher, assures in his blog Bad Astronomy, “In astronomical terms, [that distance] is pretty close, but in real human terms it’s a clean miss.”
The asteroid’s orbit is inclined in comparison to the Earth’s and lasts for 366.24 days, which is extremely close to that of the Earth, being only one day longer. Due to the nature of its orbit, 2012 DA14 will most likely not ever cause an impact – no matter what other sources assert.
Earlier this month, La Sagra joined the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Situation Awareness (SSA) program, which searches for hazards in or that will enter Earth’s orbit and cause harm or pose a risk to life, such as (as stated on their website) “remnant man-made space objects, in-orbit explosions and release events, potential impacts of Near Earth Objects, the effects of space weather phenomena on space- and ground-based infrastructure.” Together, La Sagra and SSA will search for asteroids and miscellaneous space objects that may pose as a threat to the Earth.
In addition to keeping track of the smaller asteroid, when 2012 DA14 approaches again, astronomers will jump at the opportunity to study it and measure the gravitational effects of the Earth and Moon that affect it. After 2013, the asteroid is not expected to return until 2020
According to ESA, the SSA program is developing a system of telescopes that will be able to detect any asteroids around the size of 2012 DA14 – just in case.
“I can’t say this strongly enough: asteroid 2012 DA14 is not an impact threat for February 2013,” Plait continues to write. “However, we definitely need to keep our eyes on this guy to see if it poses a threat at some future date.”