It’s creepy, spooky, and scheduled to rendezvous with Earth shortly after Halloween, on November 11, 2018. Before you get your hopes up, we are not talking about an alien, but asteroid 2015 TB145, a skull-shaped space rock nicknamed ”Death Comet.” This is the second appearance of the eerie-looking asteroid that was first observed by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) telescope on October 10, 2015.
During its initial visit, the comet zipped past at an unusually high speed of more than 78,000 miles per hour and came within 310,000 miles of Earth — nearly as close as our moon. What made the asteroid even more memorable was the timing of the encounter - at around 11:14 AM EST on Oct. 31! While NASA viewed the close flyby as a scientific opportunity to study the space rock’s physical properties in detail, the superstitious worried it would crash land into Earth, killing thousands. Though the fear failed to materialize, thanks to its appearance, the moniker “Death Comet” stuck.
Unfortunately, the 2018 flyby will not be as thrilling. In addition to being a few weeks after Halloween, the comet will also zoom past our planet from a “safe” 24 million miles away. "This time it's not coming close enough [to Earth] to be any larger than a dot of light," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Near Earth Object Studies. There is also the possibility that the asteroid’s rapid pace may have smoothed its edges such that it looks nothing like the scary comet of 2015. Nevertheless, given that we will not encounter the “Death Comet” again until 2088, its second visit is generating as much excitement as the first one.
Asteroid 2015 TB145, which measures 2,300 feet (701 meters) wide, is believed to be a dead comet. This means it has already spread its debris throughout space and, therefore, does not leave behind a trail of fiery meteors. “We found that the object reflects about 6 percent of the light it receives from the sun,” Vishnu Reddy, a research scientist at Arizona’s Planetary Science Institute, said in a 2015 news release. “That is similar to fresh asphalt, and while here on Earth we think that is pretty dark, it is brighter than a typical comet which reflects only 3 to 5 percent of the light. That suggests it could be cometary in origin ― but as there is no coma [visible atmosphere] evident, the conclusion is it is a dead comet.”
However, the researcher argues that there is no scientific basis to call it a “Death Comet.” Perhaps that’s why NASA prefers to call it the “Great Pumpkin.” Others assert that an intriguing name like the “Death Comet” is more likely to engage youth and perhaps even inspire them to enter the sciences. What do you think? Be sure to voice your opinion by voting below.
Resources: JPL.NASA.gov, huffingtonpost.com,mnn.com,