NORTH JAVA, NY - The world didn't end on December 12, 2012, but it was a close call ... astronomically speaking. Astronomers that night were tracking a giant asteroid called Toutatis that NASA says passed within a few million miles of our planet -- or about 18 times the distance to the moon.
In terms of interstellar distances, that's just a hairsbreadth away.
Dan Marcus, observatory director of the Buffalo Astronomical Association, was manning the telescopes at the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in North Java Tuesday night to capture the images you see here.
The video above shows the asteroid moving across the night sky in a time-lapse sequence covering about 25 minutes.
Marcus says the video was taken by attaching an astronomical camera to a 14-inch computer-aided telescope tracking the background stars. The camera took a three-second exposure every four seconds to capture the asteroid moving.
For the second video included here, the computer was centered on the asteroid itself, which is why the stars seem to move while the asteroid stays in the middle of the frame.
The photograph at left was taken with a one-minute exposure, showing how far the asteroid moved in that amount of time.
It took Marcus about an hour-and-a-half just to find the asteroid, he says. "When you calculate orbits you have a couple of difficulties ... one of which is parallax." That is, the night sky appears different from different locations on earth. The measurements Marcus had to work with gave him a general idea where the asteroid could be found but locking in on it required visually scanning pictures of the sky, grid by grid, until he could indentify that one tiny spec that was moving faster than the background stars.
"If it's not moving fast enough you can't see it," he says.
Astronomers say Toutatis comes close to earth every several years, but there is no risk of a collision any time soon.
According to Wired.com, the asteroid is almost half the size of the one that caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Scientists say a separate and much smaller asteroid discovered just a few days ago also came close to the earth Tuesday. Between 50 and 165 feet across, it passed only 139,500 miles (224,503 kilometers) away, or slightly more than half the moon's distance (0.6 lunar distances) from earth.