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Asteroid the length of 3 football fields eludes sky-watchers

Astronomy and AstrophysicsMedia IndustryNASAJet Propulsion Laboratory

An asteroid the length of three football fields has eluded astronomers once again.

"If we see it, that will be historic because we've reacquired a potentially hazardous asteroid," astronomer Bob Berman said Monday night. "If it turns out we can't see it, then we are going to be asking, 'Where the heck is it?'"

Berman made the comments at the start of a one-hour broadcast on the website Slooh.com that was supposed to track the large asteroid as it made its closest approach to Earth. 

But the asteroid never showed up.  

Despite its relatively large size, the asteroid known as 2000 EM26 has long been difficult to spot. In fact, it hasn't been seen by anyone since March 14, 2000, nine days after it was discovered.

"The orbital uncertainties for this object are huge," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "Although nominal orbit information suggests it would come closest to the Earth on Feb. 18, the uncertainties of its position in the sky are enormous."

Although 2000 EM26 is technically a potentially hazardous asteroid, Yeomans said there was no chance of it hitting our planet for at least 100 years. 

At its closest approach to Earth, it would still probably be more than 2 million miles away, more than eight times as far as the moon.

"We would expect an object of that size to pass that close to the Earth every six months," he said.

Yeomans is confident the asteroid will be rediscovered one day, and when the new observation of the asteroid's position is combined with the observations made in 2000, then its orbit will be well known.

"And then, once we know where to find it, everybody who owns a telescope will be able to observe it," he said.

In the meantime, Slooh.com has promised a non-monetary reward to anyone who spots the wayward asteroid.

"We are calling on amateur astronomers to find this asteroid, and as a reward we will promote their accomplishment on our home page for a year," Michael Paolucci, chief executive of Slooh, said in a statement. "We don't have the authortiy to name the asteroid after them, but we would if we could."

In the meantime, the Slooh community has nicknamed 2000 EM26 "Moby Dick."

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