Asteroid passes between the Earth and the Moon, surprising everyone

By James Maynard , Jun 09, 2013 10:09 AM EDT

An asteroid measuring about 30 feet across - about the size of a truck - zipped between the Earth and the Moon on the night of June 7. This obeject surprised astronomers, who did not know of the rocky body, dubbed 2013 LR6, until the previous day.

Unlike the larger asteroid QE2 and its companion moon, which passed Earth May 31, 2013, LR6 is much smaller, but passed much closer to us than the earlier objects. The closest approach to Earth by LR6 was at a distance of around 65,000 miles away, which occurred at 12:42 a.m., EST. That is only one-quarter of the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The asteroid passed directly over the Southern Ocean, just south of Tasmania, Australia. Live images of the passage of the asteroid were broadcast on a Google+ webcast. The webcast was made possible by the Virtual Telescope Project.

Although this space boulder was so close to our planet, the small size made it exceptionally difficult to see, even with good-sized amateur telescopes. Although LR6 was too small to cause serious damage if it had collided with the Earth, NASA is hard at work finding similar, larger bodies that could spell trouble were they to hit our planet.

"There is theoretically a collision possible between asteroids and planet Earth," Gianluca Masi, astronomer form the Virtual Telescope project, said.

This asteroid was discovered on June 6, just one day before its approach, by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. This program studies near-Earth objects (NEO's) that could pose a danger to our world. In the first week of June alone, 167 new asteroids have been discovered, including LR6, which gave Earth its latest near-miss.

"That number should give people a good heads up as to why searching is important," astronomer Nick Howes said.

The asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15 was about twice as wide as LR6. NASA has stated that the agency believes it has found 95 percent of all asteroids 3,300 feet of larger that come close to Earth. An asteroid that size or larger is blamed for the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

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