MU observatory to hold viewing of large, unusual asteroid Toutatis

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | 6:44 p.m. CST; updated 7:49 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 12, 2012

COLUMBIA – Asteroid 4179 Toutatis will pass within 4.3 million miles of Earth during the next few days, and astronomers and stargazers will have the option of watching its passage through a telescope or from their computers.

Though the asteroid is too far from Earth to be seen with the naked eye, high-tech telescopes and digital cameras will make it possible for people to see.

The Central Missouri Astronomical Association will be hosting a viewing event Wednesday night on the top floor of the Physics Building at MU. Starting at 8 p.m., members of the group and public are invited to view the asteroid through a 16-inch large aperture telescope from the Laws Observatory.

“We’ll be taking digital photos of Toutatis as well,” Val Germann, the secretary and treasurer for the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, said. “This is the closest to Earth that it’s been in many years, so it should be interesting to see.”

Toutatis is interesting to astronomers for many reasons, and every time it comes close to Earth is an opportunity to document its features.

Unlike most planets and other asteroids that rotate around a single axis, Toutatis rotates around two spin axes, causing it to tumble through space like a badly thrown football, according to NASA’s website.

With a diameter of 3.4 miles, Toutatis is one of the largest asteroids classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid” by NASA. The plane of Toutatis’ orbit is closer to the plane of Earth’s orbit than any other asteroid of its size, making it an object of interest for both amateurs and experts.

“Anything that has a certain percentage of impact with Earth every time it comes close is always interesting,” Germann said. “This asteroid comes pretty close to Earth, as far as these things go.”

Satellites will be tracking the asteroid's movements for viewers to watch live online, along with streaming of its orbit and radar images. The Slooh Space Camera and Virtual Telescope Project will both stream live, free footage of the asteroid's orbit, along with commentary from astrophysicists. Radar and satellite images from the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California will also be available for viewing.

Toutatis was officially discovered in 1989 and passes Earth every four years. This passing brings the asteroid within 18 lunar distances of Earth, too far to be of any real concern for impact but close enough for a great view.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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