As I write this, I, along with a lot of professional and amateur astronomers worldwide, are waiting for their respective skies to align with ‘Spooky’ – a Halloween inspired nickname for a newly discovered solar system body.
Radio telescopes, observatory and backyard optical telescopes are going to zero in on the sky to observe and gather data and images on this most intriguing object over the next few nights.
Spooky, or technically 2015 TB145, was discovered on October 10, 2015 by University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) on Haleakala, Maui, part of the NASA-funded Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program.
Spooky will pass closest to Earth on Halloween at about 1:00 p.m. EDT (updated) at a safe distance of 302,000 miles (updated) – just beyond the distance to the Moon. Spooky is a shade under 2,000 feet in width and appears to be spherical in the first radar images. Spooky looks for all the world like a skull – appropriate for a Halloween trick or treat from the sky!
Originally classified as an asteroid that designation was changed on October 30th to a ‘dead comet’ as a result of data obtained during follow up observations. This makes Spooky an even more interesting object as it could provide insight into the relationship between comets and asteroids. Near closest approach radar observations could resolve features as small as 2 meters.
Finding and identifying asteroids and comets is vital in order to determine if they present a threat to Earth. As we saw in the Chelyabinsk bolide event, an asteroid 65 feet across can do a lot of damage.
An object the size of Spooky would cause extensive damage to a major metropolitan area. If Spooky were on a collision course with Earth – which it isn’t – with 3 weeks notice we would probably be able to evacuate the impact area. Other than detection and then evacuation we currently have no other defense options against comets or asteroids. Planetary defense options are being considered by NASA and other agencies .
Space is an awful big place and finding these space rocks (and comets) is not easy. It takes a concerted effort to do so and more resources are needed. A proposed NASA mission called NEOCam would go a long way in detecting asteroids. There is also a privately funded effort underway by the B612 Foundation to launch the Sentinel mission.
I was able to photograph Spooky in my personal telescope early this morning. Doing so was a challenge due to Spooky being so close to the bright Moon. In my pictures you see Spooky as a line against the background stars. The picture sequence shows Spooky’s rapid movement in the span of just minutes. This motion will increase as Spooky gets closer to Earth.
— Greg Redfern (@SkyGuyinVA) October 31, 2015
— Arecibo Observatory (@NAICobservatory) October 30, 2015