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Asteroid Flyby Sunday

Asteroid NY40, which was just discovered on July 14, will beflying near the Earth on Sunday, August 18 and will be closeenough to see through binoculars. Unlike NT7, which is nowdue to hit us on 2060, there's no chance that this one willcollide with Earth.

"Flybys like this happen every 50 years or so," says DonYeomans of NASA. The last time this happened was August 31,1925, but the asteroid wasn't discovered until 77 yearslater. At the time of the flyby, no one even knew it washappening.

A team of observers led by Mike Nolan at the Arecibo radarstation in Puerto Rico will "ping" NY40 with radio waves asit approaches Earth. This will produce a 3D map of theasteroid. Some of the other images taken this way showasteroids that are binary systems, with one rock orbitinganother, and an asteroid shaped like a dog bone.

This will help them figure out if NY40?s orbit is likely tochange in the future, putting it on a collision course withEarth. "Radar data will also improve our knowledge of theasteroid's orbit," says NASA?s Jon Giorgini. "At present, weknow there's little risk of a collision with 2002 NY40 fordecades. When the Arecibo radar measurements are done, theorbit uncertainties should shrink by more than a factor of200. We'll be able to extrapolate the asteroid's motionhundreds of years into the past and into the future, too."

As it gets closer to Earth, the asteroid will get brighterand brighter. It will still be dimmer than the stars we see,but as asteroids go, it will be very bright. "Asteroids arehard to see," says Yeomans, "because they're mostly blacklike charcoal. The most common ones--carbon-rich C-typeasteroids--reflect only 3% to 5% of the light that hitsthem. Metallic asteroids, which are somewhat rare, reflectmore: 10% to 15%.?

After it passes by us, it will fade quickly, becauseasteroids have phases, like the moon,. The sunlit side ofNY40 is now facing the Earth, so it?s full, like a fullmoon. On August 18th, after it crosses the Earth?s orbit onits way toward the sun, its phase will change from full tohalf, then the night side will face us and it will seem todisappear.

"Don't forget, most asteroids pose no threat to Earth. Butthey do contain valuable metals, minerals and even waterthat we might tap in the future," says Yeomans. ?[But] weneed to know more about near-Earth asteroids in case we everneed to destroy or deflect one.?

Could we recover from an asteroid impact, or would we go theway of the dinosaurs? Learn how past civilizations havedealt with disaster from ?Catastrophobia? by Barbara HandClow and ?A Hitchhiker?s Guide to Armageddon? by DavidHatcher Childress,click here.

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