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Sci-Tech

Asteroid to swoop by Earth on January 26

You don't have to duck, but a good-sized asteroid will make a fairly close flyby of Earth at the end of the month.

Vesta asteroid
This image of the asteroid Vesta was captured by the Dawn mission. Vesta would dwarf asteroid 2004 BL86. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Space objects are hot topics these days. The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission has gotten everybody excited about comets. Asteroid-wrangling is on NASA's to-do list.

Now, we have an extraterrestrial visitor on the way, but it won't quite be knocking on the door of our humble planet; it will just be waving as it zips by in the distance.

Asteroid 2004 BL86 will swing by Earth on January 26. "The flyby of 2004 BL86 will be the closest by any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027," NASA notes. There are no worries about an "Armageddon" sort of scenario here. The asteroid's trajectory places it at 745,000 miles away from Earth at its closest point. That's plenty far away, but still near enough for scientists to get excited about studying the object.

Don Yeomans, the retired manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office, says the asteroid "poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future." NASA researchers have already made plans to observe the asteroid and gather radar-generated images as it nears Earth. This data is expected to give them the first detailed views of 2004 BL86.

The asteroid is approximately a third of a mile wide. Compare that to Vesta, an asteroid studied up close by NASA' Dawn mission, which comes in at about the size of the state of Arizona. Vesta is located in an asteroid belt roughly 150 million miles away from Earth.

NASA researchers won't be hogging all the fun when 2004 BL86 makes its flyby. Amateur astronomers will have a shot at seeing the asteroid, too. NASA says small telescopes and strong binoculars should be enough to bring it into view.

asteroid2004bl86path.jpg
This graphic shows the asteroid's expected flight path. NASA/JPL-Caltech