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Approaching Asteroid May Smash Satellites: NASA

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A newly discovered asteroid called 2012 DA14 will pass so close to Earth in February that it might hit a communications satellite, scientists say.

"That's very unlikely, but we can't rule it out," said Paul Chodas, a planetary astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Discovered several weeks ago by astronomers at the LaSagra Observatory in Spain, the asteroid is currently "a fuzzy little blob," as seen through telescopes, said Steven Chesley, also at JPL.

Astronomers estimate that the space rock is just 150 feet (45 meters) wide. But "the orbit for 2012 DA14 is currently very Earthlike, which means it will be very close to Earth on a regular basis," Chodas said.

Based on current projections, the asteroid could swing close enough to our planet to disrupt some orbiting satellites on February 15, 2013. The International Space Station, circling the planet in low-Earth orbit (about 1,200 miles/2,000 kilometers up, or closer), is in no danger, Chodas said.

However, the newfound object's orbital path is still being refined. "We don't know exactly where it is, and that uncertainty maps through to an uncertainty in the orbit and predictions," Chesley said.

For now, the astronomers aren't worried about the asteroid actually falling from the skies next winter.

Instead, 2012 DA14 could put on a show for sky-watchers as it zips past the planet.

"It might be visible to people with good binoculars or a small telescope," Chodas said. "For such a small object, that's really unusual."

NGC News
 
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