Cosmic fly-by: An asteroid gets its close-up with the planet

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A heavenly object couldn't have a less sexy name than Asteroid 2012 DA14. The 150-foot long mass will come within 17,200 miles of the Earth's surface on Feb. 15, the day after Valentine's Day.

That's closer than any similar-sized asteroid has gotten without crashing into the planet as far as scientists know. It is one of 500,000 asteroids of various sizes in the immediate cosmic neighborhood, according to NASA.

Traveling at a pokey (for outer space) 4.8 miles per second, Asteroid 2012 DA14 will get close enough to Earth to have its orbit subtly shifted. The asteroid will speed up before it is sent scurrying around the Sun with 51 days shaved from its usual 368-day orbital period, thanks to Earth's gravitational field. Humans won't see it again until February 2110, if all goes well.

When it comes to objects of such size getting this close to Earth, Asteroid 2012 DA14 is a once-in-40-year event. Usually, there's a major asteroid collision with Earth every 1,200 years. If Asteroid 2012 DA14 were to collide with the Earth this week, contrary to all scientific expectations, it wouldn't destroy the planet. It could do major damage to a reasonably sized city, however, and if it crashed into the ocean, we could expect tsunamis and tidal waves.

The technology for spotting these lonesome asteroids and plotting their trajectories has gotten so reliable in recent years that it is difficult to sneak even a car-sized rock past scientists anymore. A cadre of amateur astronomers in southern Spain discovered Asteroid 2012 DA14 last year, and they have been tracking it ever since. They'll be watching expectantly as the space mass gets within relative kissing distance of Earth.

Not to pooh-pooh a cosmic romance so close to Valentine's Day, but this is one hot 'n' heavy close encounter Earth can do without.

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