As many know, my “day” job is at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona. I operate telescopes and assist visiting astronomers with observing projects. My current shift started yesterday on February 15. My task was to help an MIT astronomer use the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope to watch a hunk of rock called 2012 DA14 as it passed near the Earth. The photo below shows the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter enclosure.
The importance of this event is that to date, this is the closest approach witnessed by an asteroid of its size. The object is about 50 meters across and it passed about 17,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, closer than many geosynchronous satellites orbit. Kitt Peak is on the wrong side of the world to have seen the object at closest approach, but the hope was to catch it as it sped away from the Earth.
By what seems to be completely random coincidence, a meteor struck Russia earlier in the day. The best estimate I’ve seen for the size of this object was 17 meters before it started disintegrating in the atmosphere, so a little bigger than a third the size of 2012 DA14. The meteor came in from a completely different trajectory than 2012 DA14, so this seems to be completely unrelated.
As it turned out, I saw neither of these objects. The Russian Meteor is probably obvious, since I’m not in Russia! The reason I didn’t get to see 2012 DA14 had to do with the tricky nature of observing asteroids and the nature of my job. My job was to get the observer going at the 2.1-meter telescope—show him how to make the telescope track asteroids (which move at a different rate and direction than stars). When the time was assigned, it looked as though the asteroid would be visible early in the evening. However, as the orbital calculations were refined, astronomers discovered it wouldn’t be visible from Arizona until 4 in the morning. My duties pulled me to another telescope before the near-Earth asteroid would rise.
Even though I didn’t get to see 2012 DA13, I did get to see some other near-Earth asteroids. The observer at the 2.1-meter had several different targets to look at and I helped him get to know the telescope and the camera with those targets. These asteroids basically look like little dots even in fairly big telescopes, little different than the background stars. The only way you know they’re an asteroid is that they move against the background of the stars.
For those who are wondering, the only real difference between a meteor and an asteroid has to do with where the object is. If the object is in space, it’s an asteroid (sometimes called a meteoroid, usually if it’s relatively small). If the object is hurtling through the atmosphere, it’s a meteor. Once it hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.
For those interested in my literary pursuits, I’ve written two short stories about meteor strikes. The first is called “An Asteroid By Any Other Name” which tells the story about an asteroid blown up on approach to Earth. The pieces land in South America and start moving through the jungle. The story is available in Wondrous Web Worlds 7 and was nominated for the James Award. The anthology is available at: http://www.sdpbookstore.com/anthologies.htm#www7
The other story is called “A Garden Resurrected” and imagines a village that decides to resurrect the local vampire to help them survive in the aftermath of a meteor strike. The story is available in the anthology Apocalypse 13 which is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-13-Padwolf-ebook/dp/B00AIEYJMI/