Good news, folks: The world won’t end on Sunday, when an asteroid nicknamed “Pitbull” will zip past Earth. But asteroid 2014 RC will provide some virtual sky-watching drama for fans of celestial flybys. (Related: “Asteroids and Comets.”)
Discovered independently by two different observatory teams on August 31, the 60-foot-wide (20 meters) space rock will come closest to Earth at 2:18 p.m. EDT (11:18 a.m. PDT/18:18 UTC) on September 7, over New Zealand, according to NASA. At its closest, the space rock will be about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) away, one-tenth of the distance to the moon.
The asteroid will skirt just outside of the orbital height of geosynchronous satellites. This was not the case with another cosmic close call, when asteroid DA14 paid a visit on February 15, 2013. That office-building-size rock raced past Earth, coming as close as 17,168 miles (27,630 kilometers), well within the orbits of many communication satellites.
“While this celestial object does not appear to pose any threat to Earth or satellites, its close approach creates a unique opportunity for researchers to observe and learn more about asteroids,” the space agency said in a statement. Astronomers will track the satellite for its chances of later hitting Earth.
At its brightest, Pitbull will reach magnitude 11.5, meaning it will be visible only through backyard telescopes with at least medium-size mirrors (6 to 8 inches, or 15 to 20 centimeters).
However, everyone around the world can join NASA and astronomy outreach venture Slooh as they stream live online views of the asteroid’s near-approach on Saturday, September 6, with a special live show on Slooh.com, free to the public, starting at 7 p.m. PDT/10 p.m. EDT/02:00 UTC (9/7).
Thankfully, astronomers have ruled out any chance for a collision with Pitbull for the foreseeable future. However, if it did ever impact Earth, the consequences would be greater than what we saw in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk last year. That unexpected asteroid was approximately 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter and exploded 18 miles (29 kilometers) above Siberia, releasing the equivalent energy of more than 20 atomic bombs (approximately 460 kilotons of TNT).
The Siberian event caused over a thousand injuries, damaged thousands of buildings, and shattered countless windows due to the resulting blast wave.
Over 11,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered and are being tracked by NASA as potentially hazardous objects.