Death Comet – Spooky Skull-Shaped Asteroid Once Again Passing Earth

Artistic impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure. Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Each night, the skies are observed from thousands of telescopes across the globe.  Most of them are low-power and in the hands of hobbyists and amateur sky watchers.  The ones with the ability to see into the depths of space are managed by governments, space agencies such as NASA, or Universities and other research groups.  These giant earth-based instruments along with the orbiting Hubble telescope, are where most of the knowledge about outer-space comes from.  Researchers and scientists spend countless hours scanning the skies to understand how the many different objects in space move and interact with one another.  Many of those investigators are looking for signs of life on distant objects, while others are trying to identify things which haven’t already been mapped or recorded.  It seems that our quest for discovery and the great unknown of space are a perfect match.

Some of these discoveries are considered game-changers such as the discovery of extra solar planets or dark matter.  Others are routine and commonplace, unless they present a unique feature that captures the attention of the curious.  One recent discovery falls into the latter category.  It is being called the “Death Comet” or as it’s known scientifically, Asteroid 2015 TB145.  The comet was originally discovered on Oct. 10, 2015, by researchers at the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System).   At the time, the discovery received a lot of attention, but not the same reasons as today.  At the time, it was the closest any object of that size had come to earth in recorded history, passing by at a distance of 310,000 miles away.  The moon is 239,000 miles away from Earth, so the cause for concern was quite high at what might happen.  Fortunately nothing happened, and the comet quietly passed Earth on Halloween night that same year.

Name Change But No Game Change

Being so close, every piece of scientific equipment that was available was pointed directly at the comet.  Based on observation and comparison with other known comets, this one was deemed to be dead; meaning it had shed all of it’s volatile elements.  Usually comets leave a tail in their wake which could be made up of ammonia, water, methane, hydrogen, and other elements which are being stripped off during flight.  This stripping process creates the tail.  There was consensus that TB145 was nothing more than an orbiting space rock; that is until the Arecibo Observatory shared the chilling radar images of the strange tumbling rock.  The shape of the comet resembled a human skull, complete with deep eye sockets and a protruding chin.  Up until that moment, NASA scientists had been calling the asteroid, “the Great Pumpkin,” due to it passing on Halloween night.  Once the pictures were seen, the old name was quickly replaced.

Now that the Death Comet is on the radar, so to speak, it’s being regularly tracked.  On November 11th, 2018, the asteroid will pass earth for the second time this decade at a distance of approximately 25 million miles.  The scientific community can breathe a sign of relief as the spacing between it and earth is much wider.  Strangely enough there were theories floating around on what kind of damage something of this size would do if it hit earth.  Much of the rock would burn away while traveling through the atmosphere, but enough would remain to cause a serious catastrophic event.  If it struck land, the damage could range from total destruction of the planet or a lasting scar that would not be soon forgotten.  Previously in our history, we’ve seen what even small space objects can do to the planet.  In 2013, a space rock hit a small city in Russia, causing damage to 7,000 buildings and seriously injuring 1,500 people.   Another impact in 1908 near Tunguska, Russia flattened over 80 million trees over an area the size of New York City.

Halley’s Comet – 1910

Could A Comet Destroy Earth?

NASA and other space agencies around the world scan the skies for objects which could impact earth.  What most people don’t realize it that Earth is in the direct path of approximately 500,000 asteroids and comets and that NASA is unaware of the exact location of 498,000 of them.  Most of them are considered too small to cause worry, but just knowing that so many are out there does make some people squeamish.

While this year’s comet won’t be appearing in time for trick or treating, it will make another Oct. 31 appearance in the future. The comet will appear again on Halloween day in the year 2088, zooming by Earth at about 20 lunar distances.

Comet or Asteroid – What is the Difference?

The main difference between asteroids and comets is what they are made of.  Asteroids contain metals and rocky material, while comets are made up of ice, dust, chemicals, and rocky material.   Although both asteroids and comets were formed billions of years ago, their positioning in the universe is what matters.  Asteroids formed much closer to the Sun, where it was too warm for ices to remain solid.  Comets, on the other hand, formed farther from the Sun where ice would not melt.  When comets approach the warmth of the sun, they lose material because of melting ice, which vaporizes to form the tail. Once all of the ice has been melted away, they are considered dead.

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