The European Space Agency has a challenge for you: Spot asteroid 2015 RN35. They’re calling it the “Christmas Asteroid,” and it’s in view of much of the earth from December 15 through December 19, if you have a telescope and know where to look.
The space rock is roughly the size of the Pyramid of Giza, and at 7:12 p.m. AEDT tonight it will be at its closest point to earth, speeding by only 692,017 or so kilometres from us (about twice the distance to our moon). This is as close as the object will get to the planet for the next decade.
How to see the Christmas Asteroid
Unlike the Star of Bethlehem that announced the birth of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Christmas Asteroid will not light up the sky. Even though it will fly close to us in asteroid terms, you’ll need a telescope of at least 11 inches to see it. To help you spot it (and other near-earth objects), the European Space Agency’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC) has released a suite of free tools for asteroid-heads that let you visualise the orbits of near-earth objects, simulate their approaches, and plan when you can see and photograph them from anywhere on earth. For a quicker look at the object’s current location relative to your own location, check out The LiveSky’s page. You can enter your city and get all the astronomical coordinates for 2015 RN35.
If you’re not going to go to all that trouble, you can still see the asteroid online. The European Space Agency is encouraging amateur astronomers to photograph the Christmas Asteroid and post pictures on social media using the hashtag #ESAChristmasAsteroid.
The mystery and danger of asteroids like 2015 RN35
While astronomers have plotted the rough orbit of asteroid 2015 RN35 and feel confident that it’s not going to crash into the earth in the near future, that’s about all we know. We don’t know what it’s made of, its exact orbit, exactly how big it is, whether it’s spinning, or whether it’s actually a disguised spaceship and the Space Brothers are finally bringing us home.
The Christmas Asteroid is one of hundreds of thousands of mid-sized space rocks that fly by us regularly. Scientists know a lot about bigger, planet-killing objects, but the smaller ones are not as well understood. The hope is that plotting them could lead to knowing when and where they might strike earth — even a smaller asteroid hitting the planet could be devastating, even if it doesn’t wipe out all life.
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