Image
© Ernesto Guido & Giovanni Sostero
2010 AL30 as imaged remotely from Australia on Jan. 11, 2010
On Wednesday (Jan. 13), an object called 2010 AL30 will fly by Earth at a distance of 130,000 km (80,000 miles). That's only one-third of the way from here to the moon.

Astronomers will be able to observe it shining with a brightness of a 14th magnitude star as it dashes through the constellations of Orion, Taurus, and Pisces (further details about the orbit of 2010 AL30 can be found on NASA's Solar System Dynamics website).

This small object is cataloged as a 10 meter-wide asteroid and there's no chance it will impact Earth, but it does provide astronomers with an interesting opportunity.

What makes this near-Earth object (NEO) special is that it has an orbital period of almost exactly one year. This fact has led some scientists to speculate that 2010 AL30 could be a man made object and not an asteroid. After all, there's a lot of space junk up there, there's every possibility that it could be a spent rocket booster or some other spacecraft artifact.

But it could just be coincidence that the NEO has the same orbital period as Earth and that it's just another asteroid.

According to Alan W. Harris, Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute, apart from 2010 AL30's coincidental orbital period, there is nothing else to suggest that it isn't a naturally occurring near-Earth asteroid.

"[2010 AL30 is] unlikely to be artificial, its orbit doesn't resemble any useful spacecraft trajectory, and its encounter velocity with the Earth is not unusually low," Harris said in The Minor Planet Mailing List. Harris also points out that 2010 AL30 has a "perfectly ordinary Earth-crossing orbit." In other words: it looks like any other near-Earth asteroid.

In reply, Andrea Boattini of the Catalina Sky Survey made the interesting point that 2010 AL30 is a great example of how much of a warning we'd have for an object of this size on an impact trajectory. After all, the discovery was only announced on Jan. 11, two days before its Earth encounter.

It is worth noting however, even if 2010 AL30 did hit Earth, it would most likely explode high in the atmosphere (with the energy of a small nuclear bomb), posing little danger to anyone on the ground. Impacts of this size occur on an annual basis.

The discovery of this 10 meter wide object is testament to the increasing capabilities of the international community of asteroid hunters. When 2010 AL30 does make its closest approach on Jan. 13, a more detailed look at this small visitor can be carried out, verifying whether it is indeed an asteroid or man made object. However, it would appear that the consensus is that it's a natural inhabitant of our solar system, passing safely through our neighborhood, providing asteroid hunters with an interesting target to study.

Sources: Spaceweather.com, Remanzacco Observatory