NASA Never Blinks: Rogue Asteroid Caught On Film

A massive space rock poses for its closeup before whizzing by

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The Mayans have plans for the Earth this Friday—destroying it to be specific. Let’s pretend, however, that that forecast doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny and that against all odds, we wake up in one piece on Saturday morning. That will free us to turn our attention to another way the world could end—rogue asteroids or comets—and those doomsday scenarios actually have the attention of scientists. The incoming ordnance the researchers most fear are those known straightforwardly as Near Earth Objects (NEOs). The dinosaurs could tell you a thing or two about the danger of such free-flying rocks. Oh wait, they can’t.

Not any object we can see earns the Near Earth label. It has to be on track to enter the air space of our solar system, passing within 1.3 astronomical units (AU)—or 121 million miles—of the sun. (A single AU is 93 million miles—or the Earth-sun distance.) Going by that standard, NASA estimates that there are thousands of NEOs out there, though the ones that worry them the most are the ones that measure 1 kilometer (.62 mi.) across—not that a smaller rock couldn’t do a whole lot of damage. (See, again, the ex-dinosaurs.)

(More: Alert Bruce Willis! Two Asteroids Pass Close to Earth)

NASA, in cooperation with a global network of optical and radio telescopes, has been standing watch against space rocks for a while, thanks to its Near Earth Object Observations Program. Telescopes in Kitt Peak, Flagstaff and Tucson, Arizona;  Goldstone, Calif; Okayama, Japan; Padua, Italy and elsewhere keep the skies constantly scanned, feeding what they find into a global database of any and all menacing bodies. So far, the telescopes have spotted nearly 850 asteroids that cross the 1 km threshold, and hope to have 90% of all of them catalogued within 10 years.

On Dec. 12, one of these bruisers, known as Toutatis, caught the eye—or antenna—of the Goldstone radio telescope. Today, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released a wonderfully eerie video clip of the rock as it makes its slow, rolling approach. Toutatis measures 3 mi. (4.8 km) across and rotates on its axis once every 5.4 days. It processes—or wobbles on its axis like a badly thrown football—once every 7.4 days.

(Video: How to Save Earth From Killer Asteroids With a Paintball Gun)

But if the Earth is Toutatis’s target, it’s going to miss. The 64-frame video was taken when the asteroid was at two slightly different distances—both about 4.4 million miles (7 million km) from here. That, by way of comparison, is 18 times the distance to the moon. Ever since, it has been moving away and the gap has been growing.

Toutatis won’t be back until 2069, when it will make an admittedly closer—but still safely remote—approach of 1.8 million mi. (3 million km). NASA puts the odds of its striking us on any of its approaches over the next 400 years at precisely—and comfortingly—zero. Still, Toutatis has thousands of brothers and sisters out there, and any one of them could turn out to be the delinquent in the family. For that reason, the telescopes will never blink. We can all go about our business, assuming we’re safe—until, that is, we’re not.

(More: Destroying Asteroids With Your Eyes is as Close To Being Superman as It Gets)

44 comments
imblaine
imblaine

its funny how some people are STILL touting the mayans "plan to destroy the world" crap. i wonder how long after it was discovered that the earth was round before the ignorant rabble finally stopped claiming it to be flat? 

Bananaland
Bananaland

Lets start the panic now!  4 milllion miles is apparently a near miss in Nasa speak. 

BrianJones
BrianJones

What amazes me, Time, is the fact your website seems to lag on getting the story up on my screen because of heavy traffic. However, all of the ads are clear and loaded before the actual content I wanted to read. Just take a look at CNN's homepage today, so many credit card ads you can barely see any news...

The media, including you, should be ashamed.

VinceWolf
VinceWolf

The problem with predicting cosmic billiard games is that you cannot extrapolate the orbit of asteroids against each other--meaning two asteroids could collide way out of our sights and the collision(s) change their orbits enough to cause their next orbits to be a 'surprise' collision with Earth that wasn't expected..  Billiards anyone?

YES
YES

The term is "precesses", not"processes".  The asteroid precesses, i.e., wobbles on its axis of rotation.

vjsd11
vjsd11

Since when did meteor impacts leave dinosaur fossils? Sorry Time, another fail.

MarkSweetipo
MarkSweetipo

Wow NASA doing something useful right on.  Quite the departure from them wasting $100 billion on a nearly useless space station that we can't even reach now on our own.  That's right our manned space capabilities today are where we were in the 1950s.  Go to the moon again heck we can't even get into space on our own.

DonBaker
DonBaker

Oops!! The wrong beginning for this article  "The Mayans have plans for the Earth this Friday".  A bunch of European-American nut-jobs are the ones with the plans.  I guess it didn't happen since it's already tomorrow (12-22-12) in Japan.


Shakti
Shakti

Um, the Mayans have plans to destroy the earth???  Please get your facts straight. The Mayans did NOT plan any apocalypse. They didn't even predict one that somebody ELSE had planned. They predicted the end of a calendar cycle.
This type of stupid-ass journalism drives me nuts. 


RickHorowitz
RickHorowitz

Seems like a lot of people here don't understand the idea of entertaining writing. I doubt very seriously that the writer is a moron. I'd guess he's one helluva lot smarter than the people who are commenting here. I also doubt he really thinks the Mayans have, or ever did have, plans for the Earth this Friday. I think he was trying to write an article about an asteroid that might be a little bit more than "An asteroid is out there. It's an interesting example of space phenomena. It's passing through our system." 

trekkerfinch
trekkerfinch

The reporter who wrote this article is a moron.

skinet7
skinet7

I am a space-enthusiast. I enjoy hearing any news about something newly discovered. But it's hard to read an article that begins with a blatant lie and completely ridiculous. "The Mayans have plans for the Earth this Friday—destroying it to be specific." Um, what? Where in any of the writings discovered does it say the world is going to be destroyed today? "Let’s pretend, however, that...against all odds, we wake up in one piece on Saturday morning." Are you kidding me?!?!? You already lost me at the Mayans said the world will be destroyed today.

arppix
arppix

The title of this article is grossly misleading.  First of all, Toutatis is not a "rogue" asteroid - I'm not sure that adjective can even be applied to a celestial object.  As all planets, asteroids and other objects do, it follows an orbital path around the sun that can be predicted to great accuracy by gravitation theory.  There is nothing "rogue" about it. 

Secondly, "caught on film"?  That was a radar image, if I recall correctly.  And NO astronomer uses film anymore for optical observations.

The state of science reporting in the media is pathetic.

macattack2142
macattack2142

Speaking of asteroids, I gotta go to the bathroom NOW! scuse me!

popcornmaltese
popcornmaltese

Jeffrey --- You said, "It processes or wobbles on its axis etc." You meant that it PRECESSES --- not processes. I hope that was the proofreader's mistake and not that of a science editor! 

lovescardboard
lovescardboard

I had to watch Deep Impact last night for good measure. I loved that movie!

The_Myth
The_Myth

It later comments in the top "title".... this is a "Killer asteroid"


Whom has it killed? Typical Time magazine fear monger comment.

Badly-Bent
Badly-Bent

Image was not clear enough for me to see if there were any impact carters (or remnants thereof) on its surface?  Might be an interesting body to attach an outpost to.

Glorystar
Glorystar

Other people write about prophecy in the name of the Maya. They say that the world will end in December 2012. The Mayan elders are angry with this. The world will not end. It will be transformed."
"We are no longer in the World of the Fourth Sun, but we are not yet in the World of the Fifth Sun. This is the time in-between, the time of transition. As we pass through transition there is a colossal, global convergence of environmental destruction, social chaos, war, and ongoing Earth Changes."
Study it first before writing non sense. Thank you

sveroeven
sveroeven

It should be 'precesses' not 'processes'.  The rock that killed off the dinosaurs is estimated to be 8-10km not less than 1km as alluded to in the article.  People that obviously have no astronomy interest or learning should not write these articles because their ignorance is exposed and they are feeding the public their own unscientific conjecture.

JustinRyanMcDonald
JustinRyanMcDonald

The Maya calendar does not predict the end of the world. To them time was cyclical, it's the beginning of a new era. Stop being retarded and spreading doomsday cultist fear. Happy 21st everyone!

JohnGiroux
JohnGiroux

The term "Mayan" refers to their language, so it's incorrect to say "The Mayans have plans..." it should read "The Mayas have plans...";  Some  professional writer you are.

RichardHunter
RichardHunter

It's Thursday night in Virginia....... Is it tomorrow yet in Australia???

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

The Bible has already told us a great asteroid will hit the earth at some point in the future..........Hide yourself in the ROCK Jesus Christ........

.......Revelation 8:10-11.........10 Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. 11 The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter.

whatatoolsack
whatatoolsack

It is embarrassing that anyone who writes for time would even entertain the idea that the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012 JUST because their calendar APPEARS to end there, when in fact, IT DOES NOT - it is designed to start over, to repeat. I remember when Time only published good articles. I can't believe this was even posted. Trash.

DavidSame
DavidSame

@vjsd11 The article is referring to the concept that an asteroid collision with earth triggered a global catastrophe causing the demise of the dinosaurs.

imblaine
imblaine

@RickHorowitz yes, we do, actually. only this writing was far from entertaining. it is what i believe is called "schlock" performed in d minor by a ham-fisted hack.

Shakti
Shakti

@RickHorowitz Great, then don't write for Time, write for the Onion..   Sorry, but this was a sucky article, however well intentioned. 

Thetruthteller
Thetruthteller

@arppix There's no pleasing all of you geniuses, is there? Your lives must be remarkably somber if all you can do is wail and gnash your few remaining teeth at every piece of writing that doesn't meet your exacting standards of erudition and scholarly diction. Read the article for what it's worth, and if you think you can do better, pray apply for a job at TIME. 

texasghost01
texasghost01

@The_Myth 

Well...it's not a killer asteroid as in...it's killed anyone yet.  But I bet you a plug nickel if it hits you square on the head...you will die.  :)

imblaine
imblaine

@PlumbLine asteroids have been falling on earth since before there were people on it. the bible "predicting" an asteroid hitting earth is like some self-made prophet predicting the sun rising. nothing more irritating than the pseudo-prophetic claims of a continually debunked tool of social control.

ObamaDownLow
ObamaDownLow

I am soooooooooo glad we have the worl expert on the  Mayan long count calendar and 13th Bak'tun to tell us what they really meant when they stopped their calendar,  Where would we be without your years fo study and expertise onn this subject?

RickHorowitz
RickHorowitz

@Shakti So don't read it. I really have to wonder about people who think they're learning much of anything from reading an entertainment 'zine like Time, myself. ;) 

And it still remains that more than a few commenters could benefit from reading about conversational implicature, poetic license, and a few other issues relating to the use of language. 

imblaine
imblaine

@Thetruthteller @arppix not really. this article just happens to merit the worst of opinions. no wonder the writer is NOT working for TIME. you put this kind of tripe publicly out there, youd best be prepared for the negative feedback it is guaranteed to elicit. some articles are marginally funny, marginally entertaining, marginally intelligent. this one wasnt even marginal. 11 thumbs down.

imblaine
imblaine

@Thetruthteller @Glorystar i wonder how many of the comments defending this article are actually the writer? something smells redolently of bacon here and it isnt the truth.