While we seem to miss rocket launches taking place on Halloween in recent years, the day hasn’t always been bare of space goodies. Back in 2015, a spooky asteroid paid a visit for some intergalactic trick or treat.
NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii spotted asteroid 2015 TB145 at a distance of about 300,000 miles. At this distance, the skull-shaped asteroid would pass just inside the orbit of the Moon. The asteroid paired with a waning full Moon, which peaked a few days earlier in 2015, made for an extra spooky Halloween night.
The now-destroyed Arecibo Observatory captured the first radar images of the skull asteroid as it passed by. These images showed the skull asteroid was about 2,000 feet in diameter and was spinning. Alongside Arecibo, other facilities trained their instruments onto the orbiting skull to see what else we could learn from it.
Another asteroid discovered so close to the Earth
It’s concerning that the asteroid was only discovered once it was within the Moon’s orbit. If the skull asteroid were a threat to Earth, it “would generate a 6-mile-wide crater,” said Mark Boslough, an asteroid impact expert. Moving at 78,293 mph, this could have been an intense impact.
This is common with asteroids potentially able to hit our homeworld. Most asteroids are discovered too close to alter their orbits away from Earth. However, NASA is looking into the matter, launching their Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9. The spacecraft will fly to an asteroid system called Didymos. This system consists of one large asteroid and a much smaller asteroid that orbits it. DART will impact the much smaller asteroid to see if it creates a noticeable change to its orbit.
DART, run by John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will be the first attempt to change an asteroid’s direction deliberately. For those concerned about its outcome, don’t be. Didymos is not a threat to the Earth, and the only orbit changed will be its orbiting companion.
The skull asteroid’s next approach
In November of 2018, the skull asteroid returned for another flyby of Earth, this time further away. Asteroid 2015 TB145 will return for another close approach of Earth in October of 2082, again at a further distance.