A fascinating image captures a close encounter with a rare double asteroid as it hurtled past Earth at 43,000 mph (70,000 kmph).
The blurry picture of the binary object known as 1999 Asteroid KW4 was captured by telescope on May 25th at a distance of some 3.2 million miles (5.1m km)
The image, revealed by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), is sharp enough that we can see the two distinct objects.
Asteroid 1999 KW4 is not one but two objects – a larger space rock measuring about 0.8 miles (1.3 km) across and a small companion that orbits it.
The speed which the double asteroids, which are separated by around 1.6 miles (2.6 km), were moving at made observing it exceptionally challenging, researchers say.
The hazy image is the actual photo snapped by scientists, and the image on the right is an artist’s interpretation of what the object might actually look like if we could see it perfectly clearly.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has been tracking the pair as they steadily neared our planet ahead of the May 25 approach.
Though it’s classified as ‘potentially hazardous,’ 1999 KW4 breezed by safely; at its closest, the object was within 3,216,271 miles from Earth – or 13.5 times the distance to the moon.
The VLT telescope is equipped with SPHERE – one of the very few instruments in the world capable of obtaining images sharp enough to distinguish the two components of the asteroid.
‘During the observations the atmospheric conditions were a bit unstable,’ said Mathias Jones, a VLT astronomer involved in the observations.
‘In addition, the asteroid was relatively faint and moving very fast in the sky, making these observations particularly challenging, and causing the AO system to crash several times.
‘It was great to see our hard work pay off despite the difficulties!’
According to ESA, the image could provide useful data to help scientists learn about the potential hazards of asteroids in the future.
‘In the worst possible case, this knowledge is also essential to predict how an asteroid could interact with the atmosphere and Earth’s surface, allowing us to mitigate damage in the event of a collision,’ said ESO astronomer Olivier Hainaut.
Before capturing this image, the ESA shared a fuzzy look at the asteroid pair in May a week ahead of its close approach.
The space agency, in collaboration with Observatoire des Makes in the French island La Réunion, captured the first ground-based observations of 1999 KW4 only recently as part of the ongoing IAWN observing campaign.
And, they’ll have all hands on deck for the upcoming encounter.
‘The goal is to put observatories and telescopes to the test, to become aware of what kind of information can be collected on short notice in case of a future close approach of a possibly threatening asteroid,’ ESA said.
Asteroid 1999 KW4 was discovered on May 20, 1999 by the LINEAR collaboration using the Goldstone and Arecibo observatories.
It orbits the sun roughly every 186 days on an elliptical path.
The object has come relatively close to Earth several times in the last century, and will get even closer with its next approach in May 2036.