'Potentially hazardous' asteroid 2002 AJ129 is headed our way

  • An asteroid called 2002 AJ129 will pass within about 2.6 million miles of Earth on February 4.
  • The space rock may be 1,000 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
  • Astronomers are taking radar images of the "potentially hazardous" asteroid, though NASA says it has "zero" chance of hitting Earth within the next 100 years.
  • Giant telescopes are being built to find similarly sized "city killer" asteroids that threaten our planet.


Astronomers are keeping a close eye on a big space rock that will fly past Earth in just a few weeks.

Dubbed asteroid 2002 AJ129, the rock is at least 1,000 feet wide and, according to experts contacted by Time, about 3,700 feet long. That exceeds the height of the 2,717-foot-tall Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the tallest building in the world.

But these estimates are suspect, which is why planetary defense experts want to get more data.

"I don't think much is known about this object," Patrick Taylor, an astronomer and planetary radar expert at Arecibo Observatory, told Business Insider in an email.

Taylor and others who work with Arecibo — a huge radio dish built inside of a Puerto Rican sinkhole — plan to ping the mysterious space rock with radar, then record the echoes that bounce back to produce high-resolution images.

"The Arecibo radar will give us a much better understanding of its size, shape, and rotation by directly measuring all three properties," Taylor said.

RELATED: A look at the 2018 space calendar

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2018 Space Calendar
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2018 Space Calendar

January 1, 2: Supermoon/Full Wolf Moon

The moon will make its closest approach to the Earth on New Year's Day and will appear larger and brighter than usual, earning it the distinction of 'Supermoon.'

Additionally, the first full moon of any year earns itself the distinction 'Full Wolf Moon.' The term was created by Native Americans as a nod to the howling wolves they would often hear outside their villages in January.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

January 3, 4: Quadrantids Meteor shower 

The Quadrantid meteor shower, known to produce from 50-100 meteors during its peak, is 2018’s first major meteor shower.

Sadly, the light from the nearly full moon will block out most of the show.

Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

January 31: Total Lunar Eclipse/Blue Moon

A Blue Moon is the term for the second full moon in a month with more than one full moon.

January's Blue Moon also happens to coincide with a total lunar eclipse.

Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

February 15: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on Feb. 15 will only be visible in parts of South America and Antarctica. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear. 

Photo: REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

March 2: Full Worm Moon

Another term coined by Native Americans, a 'Full Worm Moon' is the distinction given to the first full moon in March.

As the temperature gets warmer, the ground begins to soften and earthworms begin to rear their heads through the soil again.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

March 15: Mercury Reaches Greatest Eastern Elongation

Mercury will reach its greatest eastern elongation from the sun (i.e. its highest point above the horizon) on March 15.

This will make the planet more visible than usual.

Photo: The Royal Observatory Greenwich, London

April 22, 23: Lyrid Meteor Shower

The Lyrid meteor shower, which usually produces around 20 meteors per hour, will reach its peak between the night of April 22 and the morning of the 23rd.

Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

April 30: Full Pink Moon

'Full Pink Moon' is another term believed to have been coined by Native American tribes.

In April, the weather finally starts to get warmer and flowers begin to appear, earning the month's full moon its pretty name. 

Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

May 6, 7: Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower, made up of dust particles left behind by Halley's Comet, can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak.

Although most of its activity can be observed in the Southern Hemisphere, northerners can still take in the show if weather conditions permit.  

Photo: NASA

May 9: Jupiter Reaches Opposition

The gas giant will make its closest approach to Earth on May 9, making it appear brighter than any other time of the year.

Photo: Universal History Archive via Getty Images

May 29: Full Flower Moon

The May full moon was given this name by Native American tribes as the beginning of the month is typically when flowers are in full bloom.

Photo: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

June 27: Saturn Reaches Opposition

Saturn will make its closest approach to Earth on June 27, making it appear brighter than any other time of the year.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS

Jun 28: Full Strawberry Moon

As the last full moon of spring, stargazers can expect this one to be big and bright -- but contrary to its name, it is not red.

Strawberry picking season reaches its peak in June, earning the month's first full moon its delicious name. 

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

July 13: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the Moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on July 13 will only be visible in parts of southern Australia and Antarctica. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear.

Photo: REUTERS/Mal Langsdon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

July 27: Mars Reaches Opposition

You guessed it -- Mars will make its closest approach to Earth on July 27, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Photo: NASA/Handout via Reuters 

July 27: Full Buck Moon

The July full moon was dubbed the 'Full Buck Moon' by Native American tribes, as it appears during this time of year when male deer begin to grow their new antlers.

Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri 

July 28, 29: Total Lunar Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes completely through the Earth's shadow, lending the moon a dark-redish appearance.

July's lunar eclipse will be visible in North America, eastern Asia and Australia.

Photo: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

August 11: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on Aug. 11 will only be visible in parts of Canada, Greenland, northern Europe, and northern and eastern Asia. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear.

Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

August 12, 13: Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseids meteor shower, made up of dust particles left behind by the Swift-Tuttle Comet, can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak.

The thin crescent moon on the night of Aug. 12 will create favorable viewing conditions for the celestial spectacle, which should be visible all over the world.  

Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hanna

August 17: Venus Reaches Greatest Eastern Elongation

Venus will make its closest approach to Earth on Aug. 17, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Photo: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

August 26: Full Sturgeon Moon

The August full moon earned this distinction from Native American tribes, as sturgeon were most readily caught during this month.

Photo: Pradita Utana/NurPhoto via Getty Images

September 7: Neptune Reaches Opposition

Neptune will make its closest approach to Earth on Sept. 7, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

However, due to its distance from Earth, the blue planet will only appear as a small dot to even those using telescopes. 

Photo: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

September 24, 25: Full Harvest Moon

The name 'Harvest Moon' goes to the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox every year.

Photo: Santiago Vidal/LatinContent/Getty Images

October 8: Draconid Meteor Shower

The Draconid meteor shower, which is made up of dust particles left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner, only produces about 10 meteors per hour at its peak.

However, the new moon on the night of Oct. 9 will create extremely favorable viewing conditions for the shower, which should be visible all over the world.  

Photo: NASA 

October 21, 22: Orionid Meteor Shower

Another shower produced by Halley's comet, the Orionids will likely be at least partially blocked by the light of the nearly full moon on Oct. 21.

Photo: Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images

October 23: Uranus Reaches Opposition

Uranus will make its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 23, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Unfortunately, it is so far away from the Earth that it will not be visible without a powerful telescope. 

Photo: Time Life Pictures/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

October 24: Full Hunter's Moon

October's full moon was dubbed the 'Full Hunter's Moon' by Naive American tribes since animals are more easily spotted during this time of year after plants lose their leaves/

Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

November 5, 6: Taurids Meteor Shower

The Taurids is a small meteor shower that only produces between 5-10 meteors per hour at its peak.

Photo: NASA 

November 17, 18: Leonid Meteor Shower

The Leonid meteor shower, which radiates from the constellation Leo, produces about 15 meteors per hour at its peak. 

Photo: Ali Jarekji / Reuters

November 23: Full Beaver Moon

November's full moon was given its name by Native America tribes, who would set up beaver traps during the month in hopes of catching the creatures for their warm fur.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

December 13, 14: Geminids Meteor Shower

The Geminids meteor shower, produced by debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, is renowned as one of the most spectacular of its kind. 

The show can produce up to 120 meteors per hour at its peak and will be visible all over the planet on the night of Dec. 13. 

Photo: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

December 21, 22: Ursids Meteor Shower

The Draconid meteor shower, which is made up of dust particles left behind by the Tuttle Comet, only produces about 10 meteors per hour at its peak.

Sadly, the full moon on Dec. 22 will likely create unfavorable viewing conditions for the smaller show.

Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar DA/LA

December 22: Full Cold Moon

Unsurprisingly, December's full moon was named by Native American tribes after the cold, winter weather.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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asteroid 2002 aj129 neo orbit earth planets february 4 2018 nasa jpl labeledOsamu Ajiki/AstroArts; Ron Baalke/NASA/JPL-Caltech; Business Insider

The asteroid will fly closest to Earth during its current orbit on Monday, February 4, at around 4:30 p.m. ET, according to a press release by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA considers the space rock "potentially hazardous" because it flies within about 4.6 million miles of our planet. On February 4, however, it will pass within about 2.6 millions miles of Earth. During future trips, it could edge as close as 500,000 miles, or roughly twice the Earth-moon distance.

Yet Earth should be safe from 2002 AJ129 for a very long time.

"We have been tracking this asteroid for over 14 years and know its orbit very accurately," Paul Chodas, an astronomer who manages NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL, said in the release. "Our calculations indicate that asteroid 2002 AJ129 has no chance — zero — of colliding with Earth on Feb. 4 or any time over the next 100 years."

How to photograph a potentially hazardous asteroid

Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_ViewUploaded to Wikipedia by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)

Arecibo and other radar observatories, including the Goldstone Radio Telescope, regularly ping passing space rocks like 2002 AJ129.

"We plan observations for dozens of asteroids per year, a subset of which can be found on our webpage," Taylor said, referring to Arecibo's planetary science radar group page.

The images produced by these observation campaigns are often incredible.

Take asteroid 2014 JO25, for example. Arecibo pinged the 2,000-foot-long, peanut-shaped object with active radar during its close approach in April 2017 and recorded the echoes:

asteroid 2014 jo25 goldstone deep space network april 18 2017NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

Arecibo strung the photos together into animations (which Business Insider featured as some of the best space and astronomy images of 2017).

This clip shows the asteroid tumbling in space about 1.1 million miles from Earth:

 

Saving Earth from killer asteroids

 

Although asteroid 2002 AJ129 does not pose an immediate threat, observing such objects in detail is critical to the mission of defending Earth from dangerous space rocks.

 

"Arecibo goes beyond acting as a fortune teller, we can characterize these objects," Ed Rivera-Valentín, a planetary scientist with the Universities Space Research Association who studies Arecibo data, previously told Business Insider. "We can study their size, shape, spin state, composition, and near-surface geology."

 

The ultimate goal is to feed such data into advanced simulations and estimate how big a threat a particular space rock poses to humanity.

 

"An asteroid impact, unlike other natural catastrophes, can actually be avoided. The data from Arecibo can be used by NASA to inform a planetary defense mission," Rivera-Valentín said.

 

meteor crater nasaNASA

 

A "planetary defense" mission may sound like the plot of a science fiction blockbuster, but NASA is serious about tracking and preparing for killer asteroids. The space agency even has a mandate from Congress to find 90% of an estimated 300,000 near-Earth objects big enough to wipe a large city off the map.

 

Space rocks that are capable of such devastation pass by us with worrisomefrequency. In fact, the typical American is about 30 times more likely to die from a regional asteroid strike during their lifetime than a terrorist attack committed by a refugee.

 

But NASA recently and for a third time chose not to fully fund a mission called NEOCam: a proposal for a powerful asteroid-hunting space telescope that could help get the job done.

 

Fortunately, ground-based observatories like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) are being built and tested. As they go online in the coming years, such technology could help find killer asteroids drifting through the void.

 

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