NASA said a large space rock was set to fly narrowly by Earth on Saturday morning — the early hours of Halloween — looks like a skull.
Scientists say that the rock is a “dead” comet.
In NASA terminology, that means it had “shed its volatiles” that would produce the visible tail seen on some comets.
As it misses Earth by about 300,000 miles (slightly farther away than the moon), the skull-shaped asteroid, named 2015 TB145, was analysed to be visible to those with good telescopes.
Calling it “one of the best radar targets of the year,” a Jet Propulsion Laboratory report on the asteroid said that “the flyby presents a truly outstanding scientific opportunity to study the
physical properties of this object.”
As viewed from Earth the asteroid is traveling through Orion on October 30-31.
The asteroid is estimated to be 600 meters wide and traveling at
78,000 mph. By comparison, the meteorite that exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in
2013 was about 20 meters wide.
Asteroid 2015 TB145 will be the biggest known object to pass so close to the Earth until 2027.
Until October 10, the space agency didn’t know about 2015 TB145; more attention was on asteroid
2009 FD, which passed within about 4 million miles of Earth on October 29.
On October 10, asteroid 2000 FL 10, which had some people crying doom , missed Earth by 15 million miles.
This isn’t the first time an asteroid has come close to our planet in late October. On October 30, 1937,
the binary asteroid Hermes — an alarmingly regular visitor to these parts — came within 500,000 miles of Earth. Hermes’ two parts are
each about 600 to 900 meters wide.
However, Hermes’ orbits have been well-plotted in recent years.
According to a JPL engineer quoted
in a 2003 Cornell article, “there is no cause for worry in our lifetimes.”
JPL runs NASA’s Near Earth Object Office to keep track of such celestial visitors. You can follow its
news on Twitter at @asteroidwatch.