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3-Mile Wide Asteroid: En Route to Earth (Kind Of)!

December 12, 2012

A three-mile wide asteroid will fly by Earth over the next few days, offering astronomers and even average citizens a rare close-up ... relatively speaking of course.

The near-Earth asteroid 4179 Toutatis will be just 4.3 million miles of Earth during its closest approach early Wednesday, nothing close to Deep Impact style.

That's too far away to pose any impact threat on this pass, but close enough to put on a pretty good show through top-notch telescopes, researchers say.

The online Slooh Space Camera and Virtual Telescope Project, which will both stream live, offer free footage of the asteroid from professional-quality observatories.

Both of those online shows will feature commentary from Slooh president Patrick Paolucci and Astronomy Magazine columnist Bob Berman, who said:

"Slooh technical staff will let the public follow this fast-moving asteroid in two different ways."

"In one view, the background stars will be tracked at their own rate and the asteroid will appear as an obvious streak or a moving time-lapse dot across the starry field."

"In a second view, Toutatis itself will be tracked and held steady as a tiny pointlike object, while Earth's spin makes the background stars whiz by as streaks."

"Both methods will make the asteroid's speedy orbital motion obvious as it passes us in space."

Asteroid Toutatis was first viewed in 1934, then officially discovered in 1989. It makes one trip around the sun every four years, according to experts.

The Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., lists Toutatis as a potentially hazardous object, meaning that it could pose a threat to our planet at some point.

The current flyby is no cause for concern, however. At its closest approach, Toutatis will still be 18 times farther away from Earth than the moon is.

Toutatis would cause catastrophic damage if it ever did slam into Earth.

In general, scientists think a strike by anything at least 0.6 miles wide could have global consequences, most likely by altering the world's climate for eons.

The asteroid thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was an estimated 6 miles across, so this one would be kind of it for us. Phew.

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