Christmas Eve Asteroid: An Early Present for Astronomers

NASA is tracking a 3,600-foot long asteroid that is going to zip past Earth on Christmas Eve at a distance of 6.8 million miles. That's far enough that Santa's sleigh should be safe.



NASA's 10 Best Images Of 2015
NASA's 10 Best Images Of 2015
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The day for unwrapping all your loot is still officially Friday, but stargazers are getting a long-distance peek at an early Christmas present tonight as the asteroid 2003 SD220 will safely fly past Earth this evening at a distance of 6.8 million miles.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., have generated the highest-resolution images to date of this asteroid using the Deep Space Network's 230-foot antenna at Goldstone, Calif.

The images were taken between Dec. 17 and Dec. 22 when the distance to the near-Earth object (NEO) was narrowing from 7.3 million miles to almost the flyby distance.

As before, NASA helpfully pointed out that while this passing is rather close when compared to say, the infinite scale of the universe, there is no cause for alarm and you can enjoy your chestnuts by the fire without fear.

(Image: NASA)

(Image: NASA)

"There is no cause for concern over the upcoming flyby of asteroid 2003 SD220 this Christmas Eve," Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for NEO Studies at JPL, wrote in a Dec. 23 statement. "The closest this object will come to Santa and his eight tiny reindeer is about 28 times the distance between Earth and the moon."

Thanks to NASA scientists we also know more than just whether or not the asteroid will strike the planet: Radar images data suggest that 2003 SD220 is highly elongated and at least 3,600 feet long -- about 1,000 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

"The data acquired during this pass of the asteroid will help us plan for radar imaging during its upcoming closer approach in 2018." Lance Benner, who leads NASA's asteroid radar research program at JPL, wrote in a statement.

Three years from now, the asteroid will safely fly past Earth again, but even closer, at a distance of 1.8 million miles, which will be the closest the asteroid will get to Earth until 2070, when it is expected to safely fly past the planet at a distance of about 1.7 million miles.

This isn't the first time NASA has tracked a tumbling celestial body on the eve of a holiday. In October, the space agency's scientists tracked the asteroid 2015 TB145, which according to the space agency constituted a safe flyby of Earth --at a distance of 300,000 miles over the Halloween weekend.

[Read about the recent success of SpaceX.]

NASA scientists later determined that the celestial object was more than likely a dead comet that has shed its volatiles after numerous passes around the sun, releasing images that showed an eerie resemblance to a skull.

In August, the space agency took some time off from decoding the volumes of data beamed back from their New Horizons mission to Pluto to reassure us all that we weren't in any danger from annihilation by asteroid.

Those "reports" suggested that sometime in mid to late September, an asteroid would smash into the planet around Puerto Rico, causing wanton destruction to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as Central and South America.

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Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for InformationWeek. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin. View Full Bio

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