NASA: Feb. 15 asteroid fly-by will buzz Earth closer than many satellites

NASA says asteroid will buzz the gap between low-Earth orbit, geosynchronous satellites.

NASA says an asteroid about half the size of a football field will blow past Earth on Feb 15 closer than many man-made satellites. NASA added that while the asteroid, designated 2012 DA14 has no chance of striking Earth, since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s, astronomers have never seen an object so big come so close to our planet.

"This is a record-setting close approach," says Don Yeomans of NASA's Near Earth Object Program at JPL in a video about the asteroid NASA put out this week.  

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Yeomans said 2012 DA14 is a fairly typical near-Earth asteroid. It measures some 50 meters wide, neither very large nor very small, and is probably made of stone, as opposed to metal or ice. He estimates that an asteroid like 2012 DA14 flies past Earth, on average, every 40 years, yet actually strikes our planet only every 1200 years or so.

The impact of a 50-meter asteroid is not cataclysmic--unless you happen to be underneath it, NASA said.  He says the asteroid will thread the gap between low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station and many Earth observation satellites are located, and the higher belt of geosynchronous satellites, which provide weather data and telecommunications.

 "The odds of an impact with a satellite are extremely remote," he says.

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Yeomans noted that a similar-sized object formed the mile wide Meteor Crater in Arizona when it struck about 50,000 years ago. "That asteroid was made of iron," he says, "which made it an especially potent impactor." Also, in 1908, something about the size of 2012 DA14 exploded in the atmosphere above Siberia, leveling hundreds of square miles of forest. Researchers are still studying the "Tunguska Event" for clues to the object.

The asteroid will be theoretically bright enough - though not all that intense --  to see with a backyard telescope but it will be moving so fast it will be hard for any but the "most experienced amateur astronomers" to spot, NASA said.

Asteroids have been in the news lately in particular because a company, Deep Space Industries, said it wants to begin asteroid mining in 2015.  That's when the company said it plans to send out a squadron of 55lb cubesats called Fireflies that will explore near-Earth space for two to six months looking for target asteroids

[MORE: The sizzling world of asteroids]

Then in 2016, Deep Space said it will begin launching 70-lb DragonFlies for round-trip visits that bring back samples. The DragonFly expeditions will take two to four years, depending on the target, and will return 60 to 150 lbs of asteroid materiel.

Collecting asteroid metals is only part of the company's plans however. DSI said it has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry that can transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.

A much larger spacecraft known as a Harvestor-class machine could "return thousands of tons per year, producing water, propellant, metals, building materials and shielding for everything we do in space in decades to come. Initial markets will be customers in space, where any substance is very expensive due to the cost of launching from Earth, over time, as costs drop and technologies improve we can then begin "exporting" back to Earth," the company stated.

[MORE: NASA: 19,500 mid-size asteroids around Earth, fewer than expected]

The company envisions creating outposts that could offer satellite or spacecraft refueling for example.

Bringing back asteroid materials is only one part of the company's plans though. DSI said it has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts in space. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns, the company stated.

"Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn't economical, but makes senses if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses," said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. "Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available."

The MicroGravity Foundry will enable early utilization of asteroid material to produce structural parts, fasteners, gears, and other components to repair in-space machinery and to create new space infrastructure, such as solar power satellites. A version of the MGF process will be licensed to terrestrial users; the underlying process is more straightforward than those now employed to digitally print metal components, DSI stated.

"Using resources harvested in space is the only way to afford permanent space development," said DSI CEO David Gump. "More than 900 new asteroids that pass near Earth are discovered every year. They can be like the Iron Range of Minnesota was for the Detroit car industry last century - a key resource located near where it was needed. In this case, metals and fuel from asteroids can expand the in-space industries of this century. That is our strategy."

Last year Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron said they would bankroll a venture to survey and eventually extract precious metals and rare minerals from asteroids that orbit near Earth. Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Wash., initially will focus on developing and selling extremely low-cost robotic spacecraft for surveying missions.

Planetary says asteroid resources have some unique characteristics that make them especially attractive. Unlike Earth, where heavier metals are close to the core, metals in asteroids are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract. Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

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