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Scientists jump at chance to study asteroid passing by Earth

BOSTON -- A newly discovered asteroid about half the size of a football field will pass nearer to Earth than any other known object of its size today, giving scientists a rare opportunity for close-up observations without launching a probe.

At its closest approach, which will occur at 2:24 p.m. EST, the asteroid will pass about 17,200 miles above the planet traveling at 8 miles per second, bringing it nearer than the networks of television and weather satellites that ring the planet.

Although Asteroid 2012 DA14 is the largest known object of its size to pass this close, scientists say there is no chance of an impact, this week or in the foreseeable future.

Currently, DA14 matches Earth's year-long orbit around the sun, but after today's encounter its flight path will change, said astronomer Donald Yeomans, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"The close approach will perturb its orbit so that actually instead of having an orbital period of one year, it'll lose a couple of months," Yeomans said. "The Earth is going to put this one in an orbit that is considerably safer," he said.

The nonprofit Space Data Association, which tracks satellites for potential collisions, analyzed the asteroid's projected path and determined no spacecraft would be in its way.

"There is no reason to believe that this asteroid poses a threat to any satellites in Earth orbit," Space Data operations manager T.S. Kelso said in a statement.

For scientists, DA14 presents a rare, albeit short, opportunity to study an asteroid close-up. In addition to trying to determine what minerals it contains, which is of potential commercial interest as well as scientific, astronomers want to learn more about the asteroid's spin rate.