An asteroid that will zoom past Earth on Monday poses no threat, but will be in a good position for scientists to study, NASA said.
The asteroid, dubbed 2004 BL86, will fly too far away to affect the Earth, the International Space Station or any orbiting satellites, according to the space agency. (NASA posted this brief video to show how the asteroid will pass by.)
At its nearest, the asteroid will be about 745,000 miles away from Earth, or about three times the distance from Earth to the moon.
"Monday, Jan. 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office. "And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it's a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more." The asteroid, which is about a third of a mile in size, was discovered in 2004.
Amateur astronomers in the northern hemisphere may be able to get a look at the passing asteroid using small telescopes and strong binoculars. NASA plans to obtain scientific data and radar-generated images of the asteroid using the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
"When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images," said radar astronomer Lance Benner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises."
Scientists are interested in asteroids because it is generally believed they brought water and other building blocks of life to Earth. Yeomans also noted that in the future, asteroids may be explored for mineral ores and other natural resources.
"I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself," said Yeomans. "Asteroids are something special."