Meteor, asteroid put spotlight on space exploration

Friday, February 15, proved an active day for space exploration enthusiasts as both a meteor struck in Russia and an asteroid made a record-close pass to Earth.

While NASA says the two astronomical events were not related, both generated worldwide media attention.

“We try to map anything we can detect with a telescope that’s moving in our solar system,” said Department of Physics professor Caroline Simpson. “If we do track something that appears to have what is called an Earth-crossing orbit, it is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid or near-Earth object.”

The debris from the Russian meteor created a powerful shock wave and injured more than 1,000 people Friday morning, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. Later in the day, asteroid 2012 DA14 crossed Earth at 17,150 miles above its surface – the closest ever predicted Earth approach, without impact, for an object of its size. First discovered Feb. 23, 2012, asteroid 2012 DA14 is about 150 feet across and has an estimated mass of approximately 130,000 metric tons. That’s the weight of about 17,913 adult African elephants.

Scientists believe there are approximately 500,000 near-Earth asteroids the size of 2012 DA14. Of those, less than 1 percent have been discovered. In comparison, the meteor that struck Russia was only six and a half feet across.

“Finding something that small is extremely difficult which is why we didn’t see that one coming,” Simpson said.

As progress continues on FIU’s Stocker AstroScience Center, researchers in the Department of Physics are looking forward to continued contributions in uncovering the mysteries of space. Researchers agree that events, such as those that transpired Friday, are helping to put a spotlight on the importance of space exploration and a broad focus on astronomy.