Next Friday, February 15, the largest, closest asteroid in many years will barely miss us. Discovered a year ago by the La Sagra observatory in southern Spain, the asteroid 2012 DA14, half the size of a football field, will pass closer to us than our own TV satellites!
Skimming a mere 20,000 miles above our surface, or a dozen times closer than the Moon, it will speed along at the rate of a Moon-width per second! It would look spectacular, except that it’s just a bit too small to appear to the naked eye. It will show up in binoculars if you know exactly where to look, but the problem is that it won’t stay put. But if you did see it (more next week), its fast speed would attract attention the way a satellite does.
You can be sure that this will generate a lot of media attention. At slooh.com, the online observatory, we’re going to try to capture it and present it live, though we may have to wait until 9 p.m. (seven hours after its closest approach) so that it’s visible to our Canary Island telescopes.
Of far more interest visually is the comet PANSTARRS. It still appears to be the brightest comet of the past six years, and until last week I thought that it would be amazing from here. But the most recent observations have shown that it is not brightening as quickly as hoped. (You always can predict where a comet will appear, but not how its sublimating ices will respond to the Sun’s warmth, and hence how bright it’ll become.) Still, it ought to be a nice naked-eye object in the middle of March, low in the west right after sunset. Its tail will aim upward, and with a bit of luck should be gorgeous with just the naked eye.
But far greater excitement lies another eight months ahead. Comet ISON is still expected to become 10,000 times brighter than Comet PANSTARRS. Its orbit closely resembles that of a 17th-century comet whose brilliance and size across the heavens astounded everyone, and ISON could be a sister-piece from the same object. ISON seems like the blow-away event of 2013.
Naked-eye views should start in early to mid-November, and genuine brilliancy (albeit very low in the sky at first) is expected during the ten days that start with Thanksgiving, minus a few days of invisibility as it perilously grazes the Sun.
No, not the end of the world; rather, a first-class respite from world-weariness.