NASA releases stunning new images of huge asteroid 'little planet' baring down on Earth

NASA releases stunning new images of huge asteroid 'little planet' approaching Earth

Two new images from NASA's Near-Earth Object Surveillance (NEOFS) system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California have been released, providing an unprecedented view of the massive asteroid dubbed "little planet" by scientists.

The asteroid, named 1994 PC1, is estimated to be around 3,280 feet in diameter and is the largest asteroid to fly so close to Earth until 2027.

On Wednesday, January 18, the asteroid passed over the Pacific Ocean at a distance of approximately 1.93 million miles (3.11 million kilometers) – more than five times the distance between Earth and the Moon.

Despite its remote proximity, NASA considers 1994 PC1 a potentially hazardous object due to its size and its frequent close encounters with Earth, making it a point of interest for the space agency and asteroid experts worldwide.

These new images were captured by the NEOFS system aboard its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) aboard the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), showing the asteroid in remarkable detail with its distinctive crescent shape.

"These new images of asteroid 1994 PC1 are absolutely stunning," said NASA asteroid expert Michelle Thaller, in a statement. "Hubble's unique ability to accurately track asteroids as they spin through space allows us to obtain rare views like this, bringing us all closer to understanding these celestial objects."

Asteroid 1994 PC1 was discovered on August 9, 1994, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program on Kitt Peak, Arizona.

It is classified as a PC asteroid, which is a subclass of the Near-Earth Asteroids that have been endlessly churned up by gravitational interactions with Earth and Venus, leading to their peculiar shape, resembling a walnut or a crab.

PC asteroids spin in a way that orbits are uniquely tilted, causing their surfaces to become unevenly heated by the Sun – this often results in the formation of a donut-like crater at their poles called a "valley of shadows," which is visible in the new images of 1994 PC1.

These new views of 1994 PC1 were taken as the asteroid approached Earth, and the NEOFS system utilizes the unparalleled optics of Hubble to aid in tracking and studying these celestial objects, providing valuable insights to NASA and other agencies tasked with monitoring Earth's approach to potentially hazardous asteroids.

The decision to capture these images was based on prioritizing scientific research and public engagement, adhering to NASA's strict guidelines for safety during such observations.

"The orbital geometry for this asteroid is perfect for observations," said Joseph Masiero, NEOFS lead astronomer at JPL, in a statement. "Its trajectory takes it through the plane of the planets, which is where we need to search for near-Earth asteroids to be able to find them early enough to have a chance of deflecting them if they are on a collision course with Earth."

NASA has estimated that an impact of an object the size of 1994 PC1 occurs only once every 1200 centuries.

Thankfully, Hubble's gaze into the cosmos has helped scientists conclude that 1994 PC1 will not pose a threat to Earth for at least the next 170 years, so observers around the globe can continue to marvel at these captivating images of this massive asteroid as it continues its journey through the Solar System.

These observations serve as an important reminder of the work NASA does to monitor and study near-Earth objects like 1994 PC1 to protect our home planet.

The space agency's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) actively tracks and characterizes near-Earth asteroids like 1994 PC1 to determine the potential risk they may pose to our planet and plan any necessary countermeasures.

At the same time, NASA continues to work with its partners in the newly established International Asteroid Warning Network to collaboratively advance our ability to detect, assess, and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids.

This work culminating with the inaugural Planetary Defense Conference this week, where international experts from around the world gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the latest developments on mitigating any potential asteroid threat.

"These observations and accurate measurements are crucial to refining our predictions of asteroid orbits and building a robust asteroid detection and tracking system," said Lindley Johnson, PDCO lead at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement. "While there is not a once-size-fits-all approach to asteroid deflection, our work enables us to have ongoing conversations on how to protect Earth from potential impact."

As Hubble continues to provide unparalleled views of the universe, NASA remains committed to studying these intriguing objects and improving our understanding of them, not just for their scientific value, but also to protect our home planet from any potential threat.

With the next closest approach of 1994 PC1 to Earth predicted for July 2140, NASA has determined it poses no risk to our planet for at least the next 170 years and has prioritized using this opportunity to study the asteroid up close.

These new images of 1994 PC1 are yet another example of how NASA utilizes its unique assets to further scientific research and protect our home planet, ensuring the safety of generations to come.

Such observations continue to highlight the importance of NASA's planetary defense efforts and the critical work being done to monitor, study and mitigate the potential risk posed by asteroids like 1994 PC1.

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