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Trick or Treat: Halloween Asteroid on the Way


   Just in time for Halloween, the Earth is getting a heavenly visitor – sort of.

NASA calls it “2015 TB145,” and it’s expected to miss the Earth narrowly as it travels through Orion Friday and Saturday. But Wayne Wooten, an astronomer at Pensacola State College, says “narrowly” – in this case about 300,000 miles -- is a relative term in the vast expanse of space.

“Not so much. It’s still going to be 30% further away than the Moon,” said Wooten. “And we’ve had a lot closer calls than this. February 15, 2013, when Siberia got hit by an asteroid about the size of a 10-story building.”

Six hours later, an asteroid twice that size flew between Earth and the geo-synchronous satellite orbits only about ten thousand miles up.

The asteroids hitting Russia and the one buzzing by next weekend are just part of a huge amount of space debris, which we on Earth are getting better and better at detecting it. Wooten points to new telescopes that are able to pick up those bodies very quickly.

“You can take very short time exposures, like the new iPhone technology,” Wooten said. “We can feed this data into a computer and very quickly pick out anything that’s moving against the star field which, of course, is a threat to us because the more it’s moving, the closer to us it’s coming.”

It’s a good thing that 2015 TB145 won’t get any closer than it will. The asteroid is up to 600 meters – or 1,800 feet – wide and traveling at 78,000 miles an hour. By comparison, the asteroid exploding over Siberia was about 60 feet wide. It will not be visible to the naked eye.

This isn't the first time an asteroid has come close to our planet in late October. In 1937 Hermes – an on-and-off visitor to these parts -- came within a half million miles. Its orbits have been well-plotted in recent years.

Wooten says by then, perhaps we’ll have the technology to send manned missions not only to visit fixed-orbit asteroids, but also to intercept the wanderers and mine them.

“These could be tremendous resources,” said Wooten. “They’re full of heavy metals, all those rare earths that we’re talking about the Chinese hoarding. Go mine the asteroids, they’re chock full of them. And we know that from the meteorites that fall to the Earth.”

Until earlier this month, NASA hadn’t even heard of 2015 TB145. They were paying attention to another asteroid moving through, which had some people crying doom that missed Earth by 15 million miles. Then there’s still another, which will pass to within four million miles of Earth on Thursday.