Live Blog: Asteroid 2012 DA14 approaches Earth
February 15th, 2013
01:42 PM ET

Live Blog: Asteroid 2012 DA14 approaches Earth

It's not going to crash here, but it's still exciting! An asteroid made its closest pass by Earth at around 2:24 p.m. ET, flying about 17,200 miles above Earth’s surface. It’s estimated to be about 150 feet (45 meters) across with an estimated mass of 130,000 metric tons.

The flyby was the closest ever predicted for an object this large, according to NASA.  The asteroid, called 2012 DA14, flew between Earth and the satellites that ring the planet 22,200 miles up.

Scientists think there may be 500,000 asteroids the size of 2012 DA14, but fewer than 1% have been located.

NASA says the asteroid is entirely unrelated to the meteor that exploded over Russia Friday.

Check back for live updates beginning at 2 p.m.

2:27 p.m. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will continue to stream images at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2. More information is available at http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidflyby.

2:25 p.m. We survived! The asteroid has passed its closest approach, and is now heading away from Earth.

2:24 p.m. Paul Chodas is back. He says the orbit will shrink a little. It could make a close approach again in the year 2046. We can predict its path through most of the 21st century, he says.

2:20 p.m. Lance Benner from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory talks about the Goldstone Solar System Radar, which is useful in measuring the size, shape, rotation state. Scientists want to better understand its motion.

The asteroid appears to rotate about once every six hours, he says. "It's conceivable that it could be somewhat larger or smaller" than the estimate of 150 feet. He'll be heading out in about an hour to get more data about this space rock.

2:14 p.m. A visualization tool called Eyes on the Solar System uses data on DA14 to track the asteroid in real time. You can visit this website to look around the entire solar system in an interactive way, including the asteroid.

2:10 p.m. Talking about the Russian meteor: The two events are unrelated. "It's simply a coincidence" that they happened to come near the Earth on the same day.

An amateur group in Spain spotted the 2012 DA14 asteroid. NASA-funded surveys have found 95% of near-Earth objects.

The Gingin observatory is observing the streaking of the asteroid. It's amazing how bright the asteroid is on its approach, says Paul Chodas of the Near Earth Object team. The reason it streaks: It moves during the time exposure of the telescope, he says.

Auriol Heary at the Gingin Observatory in Australia says there are very clear skies. "The Milky Way is so clear you can almost touch it."

2:04 p.m. If you're in Eastern Europe, Asia or Australia, you could see this object with binoculars or a telescope, says NASA's Don Yeomans, who gave CNN a Science Seat interview this week.

2 p.m. NASA says we know the closest approach of this asteroid will be about 2:25 p.m., but "closest approach" takes hours. From that point on, it will be flying away from the planet. NASA is showing images, both from hobbyists in Australia.

The Gingin Observatory, near the town of Perth, Australia, on the Western side, is capturing a great view of the asteroid moving.

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Filed under: In Space
February 15th, 2013
10:35 AM ET

5 things about Friday's space events

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

About 1,000 people have been injured in Russia as the result of a meteor exploding in the air. The energy of the detonation appears to be equivalent to about 300 kilotons of TNT, said Margaret Campbell-Brown of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Western Ontario.

Meanwhile, an asteroid approached Earth but did not hit it Friday, coming closest at about 2:25 p.m. ET.

You probably have some questions about both of those events, so here's a brief overview:

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Filed under: In Space
February 14th, 2013
12:39 PM ET

Will the asteroid affect cell-phone service?

The likely answer to all of your doomsday-ish questions about the asteroid is NO.

NASA scientists have repeatedly said that it is not possible for the asteroid approaching Friday to hit the Earth. But what about communication satellites?

On the asteroid's approach it will "enter and exit a ring of satellites approximately 22,300 miles above the Earth," said CNN meteorologist Sean Morris. According to current modeling of the asteroid's path, it will probably not affect the satellites.

These satellites include those used by television networks, cell phone services and weather services.

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How to land on an asteroid
Asteroid landers in this computer simulation resemble Weebles, familiar toys for anyone who grew up in the 1970s.
February 14th, 2013
07:30 AM ET

How to land on an asteroid

By Paul Gabrielsen, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Paul Gabrielsen is a science writer based in Santa Cruz, California. He is a science communication graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has written for ScienceNOW, the San Jose Mercury News, Geospace and mongabay.com.

In the future, scientists want to be able to send spacecraft to study asteroids such as the one that will approach the Earth on Friday. A concept for these landers may look familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1970s.

Egg-shaped and weighted at the bottom, the landers - prototype designs for a possible future NASA mission - look like roly-poly Weebles, which wobble, as the old jingle goes, but don’t fall down.

The craft are still only computer simulations, a decade away from being ready to launch, but their simple design overcomes some of the biggest challenges in exploring asteroids’ alien landscapes.

Planetary scientists Naor Movshovitz and Erik Asphaug designed the landers, which they call “pods.” NASA’s Near Earth Object Program funded their work, which grew out of Movshovitz’s doctoral research on deflecting asteroids from Earth’s orbit. Movshovitz is a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Asphaug, his advisor, recently moved to Arizona State University.

Photos: Asteroids

Whether attempting to deflect an asteroid or trying to land an astronaut on its surface, scientists need to know the basics of what its surface is like. Small, low-cost surface landers (less than $1 million, with no moving parts) can travel to an asteroid and provide the needed information, if they can land successfully.

Asteroids are tricky places to land a spacecraft right-side up. Spinning through space, an asteroid’s small, uneven terrain and extremely weak gravity make even the idea of “up” and “down” fluid concepts. The techniques that have safely landed the recent Mars rovers (bouncy airbags for Spirit and Opportunity, a complicated “sky crane” for Curiosity) simply don’t work on an asteroid.

“Asteroids being weird and wacky places, we have to be prepared for any situation,” Asphaug said.

Saving Earth from asteroids

Their first design was boxy, like a deck of playing cards with one side coated in bouncy-ball rubber. The idea was for these landers to bounce around the asteroid before coming to rest, nonbouncy side down.

Since asteroids are in short supply in Santa Cruz, California, the scientists tested their designs in a computer model, using a video game physics simulator. Video game physics are just as good as scientific physics models, Asphaug said, and modern graphics cards can run the simulations 100 times faster.

Movshovitz tossed the square landers onto a computer-simulated asteroid. The rubbery side bounced, as designed. But too many landers came to rest wrong-side down.

They developed a new design - an egg-shaped lander weighted on the bottom, just like the Weebles that Asphaug played with as a kid.

“I was fascinated by Weebles,” Asphaug said. The toys, first produced in 1971, could be knocked in any direction but would still come to rest right-side up. Asphaug bet Movshovitz that the wobbly pods would work better than the previous “sandwich” lander, even in microgravity.

Movshovitz made the lower half of the pod nine times heavier than the upper half. In his simulation, the lower half was colored red, the upper half green. The landers, descending to the simulated surface, look like tomatoes falling from heaven.

Every roly-poly lander popped right up, even one that had landed on its head. Asphaug won the bet.

Movshovitz also is using video game physics to study how asteroids break apart in a planet’s orbit. The physics will be key, he said, to understanding the balance between the friction that holds the asteroid together and the strong planetary gravity that could tear it apart.

Asphaug said he hopes to continue to take advantage of the computing power developed by the video game industry to advance science. Video gaming, after all, is a $65 billion industry obsessed with making graphics faster, smoother and closer to reality than ever before. NASA’s entire budget, by comparison, is less than $18 billion.

Movshovitz uses a high-performance gaming computer sporting a graphics card with around 500 processors. His black metallic keyboard features sharp, angular lines and an amber backlit glow. With such a machine, is there ever a temptation to play games?

“After hours,” Movshovitz said with a smile.

Researchers presented these ideas at the 2012 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco in December.

Asphaug’s Arizona State University team is now working on real-life pod prototypes, about the size of two softballs end to end, to prepare for NASA’s next asteroid mission, launching in 2022.

“Time flies,” Asphaug said. “We’ll be ready.”

February 13th, 2013
11:44 AM ET

Saving the Earth from asteroids

For most of us, this Friday will be devoted to recovering from Valentine’s Day, or running to the store to buy a belated gift because you forgot that special day.

For Ed Lu, and anyone keeping up with space news recently, February 15 is significant for another reason.

The former NASA astronaut will be tracking 2012 DA14, a medium-sized asteroid expected to get so close to Earth that it will pass under all of the communications satellites orbiting our planet.

No one expects the asteroid to strike us, but Lu says it’s a warning that medium and large-sized asteroids are a threat to Earth.

Lu has devoted his life to tracking such asteroids, and he is working at launching a space telescope dedicated at finding, mapping and tracking asteroids that could harm the planet.

Lu spoke with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta about his mission. Catch a preview by clicking on the above video (part 1), and the one below (part 2). Watch the full interview Sunday at 2:30 pm ET on CNN’s The Next List.

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NASA cheers new Landsat launch
An Atlas-V rocket carrying a Landsat satellite lifts off Monday at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
February 12th, 2013
11:58 AM ET

NASA cheers new Landsat launch

NASA put its newest Landsat satellite into orbit on Monday, extending a long-running program that has been beaming back dramatic images of Earth for more than 40 years.

The Landsat Data Continuity Mission - to be designated Landsat 8, once it's up and running - lifted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base atop an Atlas V booster.

The $855 million platform, about the size of a sport-utility vehicle, has been in the works for years amid concerns about maintaining the U.S. suite of geoscience satellites.

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Mars rover driver leaves the steering wheel
Scott Maxwell has been driving rovers on Mars since 2004. He left NASA on Friday to take a job at Google.
February 12th, 2013
10:32 AM ET

Mars rover driver leaves the steering wheel

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN

NASA's Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell shared all kinds of amazing things about himself when we last spoke in August. He’s a cancer survivor, for one. And his father was a railroad engineer, passionate about driving trains, while Maxwell himself has been enthusiastically controlling vehicles on Mars since 2004.

“This is the kind of thing that I, as a kid, grew up dreaming about doing, and I have been unbelievably lucky to be able to do this with part of my life,” Maxwell told me.

Given how much he loves working on Mars missions, it was shocking when he revealed on social media that he would be leaving NASA for Google.

“It’s a lot like when my 15-year marriage broke up: JPL and I have grown in different directions, and I’m not a good fit there anymore,” he wrote on Google+. His last day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was Friday.

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Mars rover drill collects rock sample
Rover's drill collected samples from Gale Crater on Mars.
February 9th, 2013
05:13 PM ET

Mars rover drill collects rock sample

A space-age jack of all trades, NASA's Curiosity rover recorded a first by using its drill to collect a sample from a Martian rock.

The rover sent images of the hole in sedimentary bedrock to Earth on Saturday, NASA said in a statement.

NASA said the rover will analyze the rock powder sample.

The flat rock is believed to hold evidence of wet environments that disappeared long ago, officials said.

Curiosity used a drill attached to the end of its robotic arm. It's the first time any robot has drilled such a sample on the Red Planet.

"The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America."

In its first two months on Mars, Curiosity stumbled upon an area where it appears that water once flowed in a vigorous stream. Scientists said the rover spotted rock outcrops that seem to have formed in the presence of water, with rounded gravels that may have been transported by water.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • Robots
The Science Seat: Sun will fry Earth - 'Sorry!'
Astronomer Jason Kalirai says he finds it rewarding to spark young people's interest in science.
February 8th, 2013
07:00 AM ET

The Science Seat: Sun will fry Earth - 'Sorry!'

By Nana Karikari-apau, CNN

Editor's note: The Science Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and shakers from many different areas of scientific exploration. This is the first installment.

Jason Kalirai is the deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be NASA's next big mission in astrophysics. He works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Last month, Kalirai, 34, won the American Astronomical Society's Newton Lacy Pierce Prize for his achievements in observational astronomy. CNN Light Years recently spoke with him about his work. Below is an edited transcript.

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Filed under: In Space • Science Seat • the Sun
February 7th, 2013
06:12 PM ET

So, about that asteroid near Earth ...

Don't consider this a count-down to doomsday, but on February 15 an asteroid is going to come pretty close to Earth.

And this is only one of thousands of objects that are destined to one day enter our neighborhood in space.

"There are lots of asteroids that we're watching that we haven't yet ruled out an Earth impact, but all of them have an impact probability that is very, very low," Don Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a press briefing.

This particular asteroid is called 2012 DA14. NASA scientists reiterated Thursday that people have nothing to worry about.

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