27 January – A small asteroid will pass within about 60,000km (roughly 37,000miles) of the Earth this afternoon, reaching its closest at about 16.00 GMT. This is one of the closest asteroid approaches ever recorded, but it poses no threat to Earth or to our geostationary satellites (which orbit at a distance of around 20,000km).
The asteroid has been named 2012 BX34 and is estimated to be about 11m (36ft) in diameter. Though it won’t be visible to the naked eye, keen amateur astronomers still have a good chance of sighting it.
Fortunately it’s very rare for large asteroids to strike the Earth – perhaps 60 objects greater than 5 km across have done so in the last 600 million years (or an average of about one every 10 million years). One of the most famous was of course the 10km-wide asteroid that may have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Smaller objects hit our planet more frequently – about 500 football-sized rocks strike the Earth each year.
Find out more about asteroids:
Solar flare seen by ESA/NASA SOHO satellite
on 23 January,
shortly after a large solar flare
occurred at 03:59 GMT. Credits: ESA/NASA
25 January 2012 – A stronger-than-average solar flare at 03:59 GMT on Monday set off a coronal mass ejection travelling at 1400 km/s and reaching Earth yesterday afternoon. Its effects are likely to continue throughout today (Wednesday 25 Jan).
Solar flares are enormous explosions caused by the sudden release of energy from the magnetic fields of sunspots – temporary areas of intense magnetic activity in the Sun’s atmosphere (corona). Solar flares in turn can result in coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – huge clouds of high-energy particles blasted into space by a solar flare. These clouds of material can strike the Earth
causing geomagnetic storms and triggering a range of phenomena. Some of these are beautiful like the aurora, but others can be disastrous – disrupting satellites and communications systems.
Monday’s solar flare triggered the strongest stream of protons seen since 2005. However, scientists predict that the current CME will only cause a minor geomagnetic storm without any visible effects on the ground nor any serious effects on satellites, phone networks or power grids.
Get involved – You can help spot and track solar storms at Solar Stormwatch, a joint web project of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Zooniverse and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. If you get involved your work will help give astronauts an early warning if dangerous solar radiation is headed their way – and you could make a new scientific discovery.
The Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition is back! Now in its fourth year, the competition continues to showcase incredible images from amateur astrophotographers all around the world, featuring beautiful objects from within our solar system and far into deep space.
Anyone can enter – whether you’re new to astrophotography or a seasoned amateur, and whatever your age. We’ve had a huge range of images in previous years, from amazing landscape photography that captures the Moon and the Sun to stunning deep space images taken by robotic telescopes. Find out how to enter and what you could win.
Overall winner 2011: Jupiter with lo and Ganymede,
September 2010 by Damian Peach (UK)
To enter the competition you will first need to add your photos to the Astronomy Photographer of the Year group on the photo-sharing website Flickr. Once you have done this, please fill in the relevant online application form on the Astronomy Photographer of the Year website.
The four main competition categories are Earth and Space, Our Solar System, Deep Space and Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year. The judges will also be awarding three additional special prizes: People and Space, Best Newcomer, and Robotic Scope Image of the Year. Find out more about the categories and prizes.
Entries to the competition close at midday (BST) on Friday 29 June 2012.
The winning images will be displayed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich from September in the free Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition. There’s still time to see the winning images from 2011 (closes 12 February).
Good luck, and we look forward to seeing your photos in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012!
The first meteor shower of the year is underway and peaking at the moment. The Quadrantids is one of the most spectacular but brief showers of the year, at its peak producing 60-120 meteors per hour.
Meteors, popularly known as ‘shooting stars’, appear as fleeting streaks of light and most are caused by particles no bigger than grains of sand. These collide with the Earth’s atmosphere at up to 70 km per second (157,000 mph) and burn up. With patience, meteors can be seen on any night of the year.
All the meteors in the Quatrandid shower appear to come from the same point in the sky, or radiant, situated near the familiar grouping of the Plough. The shower is named for the former constellation Quadrans Muralis, the stars of which once lay in that direction. The Quadrantids are less well-known than many other meteor showers, probably because only the hardiest observers brave the cold January nights.
In contrast with many meteor showers, the Quadrantids are not obviously connected to a particular modern-day comet but some astronomers believe them to originate from a large cometary body that broke up thousands of years ago.
In 2003, SETI institute astronomer Peter Jenniskens suggested that the Quadrantids are tied to the near-Earth asteroid 2003EH1 (see Dr Jenniskens’ paper here). Dr Jenniskens believes this object is actually an extinct comet, possibly once seen by the Chinese 500 years ago in 1490. The comet may have subsequently broken up, releasing all its volatile material in a single event. When the Earth passes through the dust cloud each January we see the meteor shower.
Unlike many astronomical objects, observers need no special equipment to view meteors. The sensitivity and wide field of view of the human eye are perfect for watching the Quadrantids and all observers need to do is watch the sky for a few minutes.
As ever, it pays to leave the lights of the city behind and rural sites will offer the best view of the Quadrantids, but (weather permitting) they should be clearly visible all over the UK.
The next major meteor shower of the year will be the Lyrids, which peak around 22 April. Find out more about annual meteor showers in our fact file.
Image: Meteors in the Quadrantid shower in January 1995. The image superimposed many video frames to illustrate the apparent origin of the meteors from their radiant. Credit: Sirko Molau, IMO, Archenhold-Sternwarte, NASA.