Although many asteroids pass near our planet annually, the anticipated flyby of an asteroid near the Earth later this month will be quite different and special.
The asteroid, dubbed 2004 BL86, will pass near Earth at a proximity about three times the distance between our planet to the moon. With an estimated size of about 0.5 kilometers, the asteroid will be the biggest asteroid to pass close to Earth until 2027 when another asteroid known as 1999 AN10 is expected to break this record.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory likewise said that the asteroid, which was first discovered on Jan. 30, 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey in New Mexico, will be about 1.2 million kilometers from the Earth during its closest approach on Jan. 26.
Don Yeomans from NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office said that Jan. 26 will be the time when 2004 BL86 will get closest to Earth for at least the next two centuries and that while the flyby does not pose any threat, the proximity of such a transient large asteroid offers scientists an opportunity to learn more and observe.
Scientists with the U.S. space agency will be using the Deep Space Network antenna in California and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to gather data and images of the 2004 BL86, but NASA said that the asteroid is also anticipated to be observable even by amateur astronomers using strong binoculars and telescopes.
"I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself," Yeomans said. "Asteroids are something special."
Amateur astronomers can point their binoculars and telescopes at the constellation Cancer on Jan. 26 to observe the motion of the space rock. The asteroid will have a visual magnitude of 9 so it can be seen as a faint star using telescopes that have an aperture of at least 10 cm.
While 2004 BL86 may be seen using big binoculars, observers are encouraged to use steady mount and bigger optics so the motion of the asteroid can be observed better.
Experts expect that maximum brightness will happen between 11:07 p.m. to 11:52 p.m EST on Jan. 26. The asteroid will be between the apparent position of Jupiter and Procyon at 7:44 p.m., during which observers with computerized telescopes can point to HIP 41843.
By 7:51 p.m, the asteroid will pass by star 34 Cancer. Those who do not have computerized telescopes should point their telescope to M44 lying between Jupiter and Pollux.