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Asteroid is set for a close flyby of Earth

Will pass within 4.3 million miles

An asteroid named Toutatis that passes by Earth every four years will make its rounds again over the next few days.

The large hunk of rock will get within 4.3 million miles of our planet, roughly 18 times the distance from here to the moon, said Alan MacRobert, ­senior editor at Sky and Telescope Magazine and astronomy columnist for the Globe.

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“This has gotten tied up in some people’s minds with the Mayan calendar and the world ending,” MacRobert said. “It’s not going to end the world.”

The asteroid gets its name from Toutatis, a god of ancient Gaul, who was entrusted by a village chief to keep the sky from falling.

The asteroid was first spotted in 1934, but astronomers lost track of it until it was rediscovered in 1989, he said.

MacRobert said, “Because this is a near-Earth asteroid in an orbit that is similar to Earth that encounters Earth in these flybys every four years, when it was discovered, the immediate possibility came up: ‘Hey, is this going to hit us?’”

The track of the asteroid changes every cycle, making it difficult for astronomers to predict Toutatis’s path, MacRobert said.

Specialists can say with confidence, however, that Toutatis will not hit Earth anytime within the next 600 years, he said.

Given its chaotic orbit, it is possible that Toutatis could be completely flung out of the ­solar system before it ever hits our planet, MacRobert said.

“Of all the things to worry about, this particular asteroid is not one,” he said. “It’s not very close, as near-Earth asteroids go.”

Eight years ago, Toutatis came much closer to Earth, getting within a million miles of Earth, or about four times the distance from here to the moon, MacRobert said.

Astronomers can get a more precise idea of the asteroid’s ­orbit as it moves closer to Earth and comes within radar range, he said.

NASA took radar images of the approaching asteroid from its Goldstone Observatory in California.

“It’s quite small, all lumpy and bumpy,” MacRobert said. “It looks like two objects that have bumped up against each other, rotating together.”

Although Toutatis does not pose a danger to earthlings, it will put on a nice show, he said.

Sky and Telescope Magazine published finder charts for ­asteroid enthusiasts to track Toutatis, which will be visible in moderate-sized backyard telescopes starting Wednesday night, he said.

The asteroid will be at its brightest four nights from now, MacRobert said.

Melissa Werthmann can be reached at melissa.werthmann@globe.com.
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