On Friday, February 15, 2013, an asteroid the size of half a football field—50 meters or so in diameter—will come within a hair of hitting Earth. At closest approach, it will pass a mere 17,000 miles away, well within the orbit of our geosynchronous communications satellites.
Depending on its composition, if asteroid 2012 DA14 were to hit us, it could wipe out a major city, blasting out a crater half a kilometer in diameter with the energy of a 2 to 3 megaton nuclear bomb. It won’t hit, not now, nor in the coming decades. But it does provide a rare opportunity to observe such a rock up close.
I reported on this story for Popular Mechanics this week, and on the process, I uncovered a fascinating fact.
The asteroid was discovered by a team of amateur astronomers in Spain, including one Jaime Nomen. Listening to the conference call with other reporters and Nomen and Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society (which provided a grant that enabled the discovery of the asteroid last year), I was intrigued by Nomen’s status as an amateur astronomer. I asked him to tell us more about his life and his work.
Yes, why not. Okay, I tell now that just one hour ago, I finished my appointments. I am dental surgeon. Now I am…in the office. But I’m working in my professional work only two days a week now. I started some years before working all the week, of course. But I like it too much, the asteroids and astronomy. I started to dedicate more of my time in what the beginning was my hobby. At this moment, I’m really busy all the week programming the software [to] move the telescope automatically, to use the data. At this moment [I’ve] already started to observe, here from the office.
Nomen interacts with the telescope—which is robotic, connected to the Internet, and in the mountains some 400 miles to the southwest of Nome’s office—through his laptop wherever he happens to find himself, including on the train traveling between Barcelona and Madrid on weekends.
One of the most important aspects of this story was alluded to by media representative and Aquarius Group CEO Diane Murphy, who set up the conference call:
Jaime…we really congratulate you on what you’re doing. It’s a perfect example of technology now enabling individuals to do what only governments could do before.
Indeed, this is the big story of our times. That with passion as a primary driver, small teams and even individuals are empowered by exponentially advancing technology to make extraordinary contributions to society.
Now, thanks to a dental surgeon in Barcelona with a passion for asteroids, the world’s major observatories will be able to train their telescopes on asteroid 2012 DA14 as it goes by.