For people who are even slightly familiar with the solar system, it is common knowledge that Earth is in the middle of a cosmic shooting gallery with millions upon millions of asteroids constantly hurtling through the solar system at almost unimaginable speeds. Just three days ago, it was announced that, come Monday, Earth is going to have a close encounter with an asteroid that, literally, avoided detection until almost the last minute.
Fortunately, though, the asteroid will pass Earth, but only with about 12,000 miles (about half the Earth’s circumference) to spare.
Asteroid 2011MD is estimated to be anywhere from 10 to 30 yards wide with some estimates even being as generous as 50 yards (estimates vary by source). Now, while not overly huge as some asteroids are hundreds of miles across, one this size is, according to experts, a once every 6 years event, so it is still far bigger than most. The good news is that, even at the largest estimate of 50 yards (150 feet), the asteroid would, in all probability, burn up on descent through Earth’s protective atmosphere, resulting in nothing more than a monster fireball and, perhaps, a few scattered meteorite fragments scattered across the ground. Needless to say, such an asteroid would not do any real damage unless it were to hit someone or someone’s property. For astronomers at NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, it is events like these, asteroids passing Earth within only days of discovery, that reinforce the need to be vigilant in scanning the skies.
Despite its just being discovered, though, 2011MD is already giving up its secrets to scientists. So, the dossier on 2011MD? First off, in all probability, it came from the Main Asteroid Belt owing to its trajectory through space. Also, the asteroid is classified as a stony asteroid, which makes it all the more probable that, should it enter Earth’s atmosphere (it won’t), it will burn up as stony asteroids are a lot less resilient than their iron counterparts.
As for asteroids themselves, most lie in the Main Asteroid Belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. In the Early solar system, dust was everywhere. In time, dust particles started colliding and clumping together. As the groups of gravitationally-bound space debris got bigger and bigger, they attracted most of the loose space debris in the solar system to form the planets. However, for reasons unknown, the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter never coalesced into a planet, thus resulting in the Asteroid Belt. Occasionally, asteroids collide, sending both out of the belt and flying on random trajectories through space, which is almost certainly what happened with 2011MD.
Now, as the asteroid will be coming so close to Earth: the big question many astronomers are asking themselves is this: will I be able to see it?
Unfortunately for us in the Cleveland area, the answer is probably not. The asteroid will be making its closest approach at 1:14pm EDT (Cleveland time) on Monday. Obviously, not only will Cleveland area residents be denied the chance to see the asteroid at closest approach (while it’s at its brightest), so will the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Also, while it’s close, 2011MD is also small, probably too small to be seen under light polluted Cleveland skies with any telescope.
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