Rare Double Asteroid Flyby to Pass Earth Just 42 Hours Apart

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 24, 2024 12:00
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This week, two significant asteroids are expected to safely pass Earth within a 42-hour span, coinciding with this year's Asteroid Day. These events emphasize the importance of improving our capabilities to detect and monitor near-Earth objects (NEOs).

A Close Encounter with Two Asteroids

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), two asteroids, 2024 MK and (415029) 2011 UL21, will make their close approaches to Earth within a short time frame, offering a unique opportunity for observation and study.

Asteroid 2024 MK

Asteroid 2024 MK, discovered on June 16, 2024, measures between 120 and 260 meters. It is set to make a close approach to Earth on June 29, passing within 290,000 kilometers—roughly 75% of the distance to the Moon. Despite its proximity, there is no risk of impact. If an asteroid of this size were to strike Earth, it would cause considerable damage, potentially impacting large urban areas and causing widespread destruction.

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Asteroid 2024 MK will fly past Earth on 29 June at approximately 13:45 UTC (15:45 CEST). It is between 120 and 260 m across and will pass within the orbit of the moon. Credit: European Space Agency

The rapid discovery and subsequent tracking of 2024 MK highlight both the advancements and the current limitations in our asteroid detection capabilities. Discovering an asteroid of this size just two weeks before its closest approach underscores the necessity for improved surveillance and early-warning systems.

Due to its size and proximity, 2024 MK will be observable in clear, dark skies using small telescopes or binoculars for amateur astronomers in some parts of the world. This close encounter offers a valuable opportunity for scientists and astronomers to study the asteroid's characteristics and behavior up close.

Asteroid (415029) 2011 UL21

The larger of the two asteroids, (415029) 2011 UL21, measures 2310 meters across, making it larger than 99% of all known NEOs. On June 27, it will pass Earth at a distance more than 17 times that of the Moon. Despite its considerable size, there is no risk of collision with Earth.

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Asteroid (415029) 2011 Ul21 Will Fly Past Earth On 27 June, At 2014 Utc (2214 Cest).

This asteroid's immense size means that if it were on a collision course with Earth, the consequences would be catastrophic, causing global climate changes and mass extinctions similar to the events that likely led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

Asteroid 2011 UL21 has an orbit around the Sun that is steeply inclined compared to most large objects in the Solar System. This unusual orbit could be the result of gravitational interactions with Jupiter, which can deflect asteroids inward toward Earth.

Understanding these gravitational influences is crucial for predicting and mitigating potential asteroid threats. Scientists study these orbital patterns to better understand the dynamics of asteroid movements and to develop more accurate models for future predictions.

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The Significance of Asteroid Day

Asteroid Day, observed on June 30 each year, commemorates the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska event, the largest observed asteroid impact in recorded history. This event, which flattened approximately 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers in Siberia, serves as a stark reminder of the potential devastation an asteroid impact could cause. The Tunguska event's timing was a fortunate near-miss for humanity, as it occurred in a sparsely populated area rather than over a major city.

Asteroid Day was co-founded by astrophysicist and famed musician Dr. Brian May, among others, and is endorsed by the United Nations. The day aims to raise public awareness about the risks of asteroid impacts and to promote the importance of monitoring and studying NEOs. Activities on Asteroid Day include educational programs, public talks, and special observatory sessions designed to engage the public and inspire interest in planetary defense.

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Enhancing Detection and Defense

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been at the forefront of planetary defense, coordinating data, information, and expertise to address asteroid hazards. Over the past two decades, ESA has focused on the detection and analysis of potentially hazardous NEOs. There are an estimated 5 million NEOs larger than 20 meters, which is the threshold above which an impact could cause significant damage.

ESA's Hera mission, set to launch later this year, is part of the world’s first test of asteroid deflection. Hera will perform a detailed survey of the asteroid Dimorphos following NASA’s DART mission impact in September 2022. This mission aims to develop a well-understood and repeatable planetary defense technique.

Back on Earth, ESA is developing a network of Flyeye telescopes inspired by insect vision. These telescopes will use their wide field of view to scan the entire sky each night, searching for new potentially hazardous asteroids. Additionally, the future NEOMIR satellite will be positioned between Earth and the Sun to use infrared light to detect asteroids approaching from regions of the sky currently obscured by the Sun’s glare.

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ESA’s Planetary Defense Office continues to monitor the sky for potential threats. In May 2024, ESA's fireball camera in Cáceres, Spain, captured a meteor believed to be a small comet fragment. In June 2024, the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona discovered a small asteroid that passed very close to Earth, demonstrating the importance of continuous monitoring.

These advancements in detection and defense are critical for safeguarding our planet from potential asteroid impacts, ensuring a more secure future for Earth. As technology and international cooperation improve, so too does our ability to prevent and mitigate the dangers posed by these celestial objects.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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