It sounds like the plot in a science fiction movie.
An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth at 17,400 miles per hour. It’s estimated to be 150 feet across. And it arrives — today.
But this asteroid is all science and no fiction. It isn’t large enough to cause an extinction event, but it is large enough to level a city of millions.
The good news in this asteroid known by the less-than-snappy moniker of “2012 DA14” is not on a collision course with Earth. But it’s close. In terms of celestial bodies, it’s very close.
That’s just the sort of thing that encourages Jim Wentworth to leave the cozy confines of his home south of Nisswa to sit in an even cozier observatory. Wentworth, a retired electrical engineer and former Central Lakes College astronomy instructor, designed and constructed his own observatory. The Fire in the Sky Observatory.
Even after 40 years of watching the night skies, Wentworth’s enthusiasm for the adventure found in the universe hasn’t dimmed.
“There are thousands of those objects out there,” Wentworth said of 2012 DA14 asteroid as he watched several computers screens in his observatory. Red dots marked the known asteroids. With a few clicks of a mouse, a sea of red appeared.
“There are potentially hazardous asteroids — asteroids that will approach very close to the Earth,” Wentworth said. “We have catalogued thousands and thousands of them and we are learning more and more about their positions.
“The dinosaurs didn’t have that luxury.”
Wentworth’s observatory is a registered research facility with the Minor Planets Center of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He tracks near Earth orbit asteroids.
“It’s better than TV,” he said and chuckled. “You can see what the universe is really like. It makes you pretty humble. It’s a lot of fun. ... Cool stuff.”
This asteroid isn’t one to worry about, Wentworth said, but he said a benefit comes from getting people to think about the universe. The real worry, he said, comes from the uncharted asteroids that may be lurking in the deep. Wentworth began tracking asteroids in 1998. He is still amazed at the ability to harness technology to see billions of miles away.
Wentworth was known for possessing a teaching flair that filled astronomy classes at Central Lakes College. He was the type of teacher whose enthusiasm spread to students. In 2003, Wentworth was the college’s first recipient of its teaching excellence recognition award.
As a boy, Wentworth was inspired to learn more about the universe after he stood out by the barn intrigued by the bright light of Venus. On any given clear night, the military veteran may be found at his monitors or his powerful telescope watching the skies. Wentworth’s taken remarkable photographs of a dazzling and textured moon along with colorful and graceful images of a nebula all from his observatory. The asteroid is moving so fast, in order to see it people have to have help and be able to plot its course.
Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass well within the ring of communications satellites around the planet — a mere 17,200 miles — perhaps a planetary haircut distance between space rock and Earth’s crust.
The image is familiar. A jagged, pock-marked and apparently lifeless rock tumbles toward the brilliant blue ball in the blackness of space. Break out the bucket list. Well, not so fast.
NASA reports there is no chance for a collision with Earth, but this asteroid’s path is a record close approach for an object its size. And astronomers just discovered it a year ago.
“The close approach this year is the closest the asteroid will come for at least three decades,” NASA reported.
Previous congressional hearings on the hazards of asteroid and comet impacts noted an asteroid a mile wide could literally kill billions and threaten the future of modern civilization. Its impact could create a crater deeper than 20 Washington monuments stacked on top of each other, as Congress heard in testimony about planetary defense in 1998. The dust from the impact would dim the sunlight for months, maybe a year. Chances of an extinction-level event? One in a million in the 21st century. Chance of a civilization-threatening level event? Perhaps one chance in a few hundred thousand of happening this year, or one chance in a few thousand of happening in the next 100 years.
“On average, we expect an object of this size to get this close to the Earth about once every 40 years,” NASA reported. “An actual Earth collision by an object of this size would be expected much less frequently, about once every 1,200 years on average.”
NASA’s Near Earth Object program noted this close pass is providing a rare opportunity for researchers to see the asteroid up close, relatively speaking. For those on the ground, the asteroid — just 10 feet shy of a football field’s width and less than half its length — can’t be seen with the naked eye. It will be closest to the Earth at 1:24 p.m. By the time the asteroid will be viewable from central Minnesota, it will have faded.
Wentworth said he hopes events like this and the expectations for a spectacular show later this year via the comet ISON, also discovered by amateur astronomers, inspire people to look beyond their immediate horizons. Along with concern for the environment, he hopes more thought is given to the negative effects of light pollution on the ability to view the night skies in the lakes area.
“Look out, see what’s out there,” Wentworth said. “We’ve got to be aware of our environment in the solar system, the same thing with the planet. Our planet is the only spaceship we’ve got. We better start taking care of it.”