Skip to main content

Astronomers capture video of platinum-laden ‘trillion-dollar asteroid’ zooming past Earth

NASA asteroid
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Earlier this month, an asteroid whipped past the Earth. Normally this isn’t a particularly special phenomenon — but this wasn’t your typical asteroid. Unlike all the other space rocks that come hurtling past our home planet every month, the asteroid known as 2011 UW158 happens to contain somewhere around $5.4 trillion dollars worth of platinum, give or take a few billion.

When it flew by on June 19, it missed Earth by about 1.5 million miles — roughly six times the distance between our planet and the moon. That might seem like a huge stretch of space — and it is — but it’s also remarkably close in when you consider how unimaginably massive the universe is. It’s so close, in fact, that scientists were able to observe the flyby as it happened.

Using images that were reconstructed from radar scan data, NASA was actually able to put together a short video of the rock as it zoomed by. It’s incredibly grainy and low-quality, but even so, you can clearly make out the rock’s shape and spin.

150728-0001Related: Asteroid mining: 19th-century gold rush meets outer space

You can’t tell just from the footage, but 2011 UW158 measures about 900 by 1,800 feet in size, and has an unusually fast spin, making a full rotation about once every 37 minutes. Most asteroids are really just a bunch of smaller rocks held together in a loose cluster by gravity, and therefore can’t handle that kind of spin, but UW158 can — which suggests that there’s something other than gravity holding it together.

The asteroid’s rare composition makes it a prime candidate for mining, but unfortunately, the world’s premiere asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources, wasn’t quite ready to lasso it. The company was only recently able to get its first spacecraft into orbit, and the craft they sent up is designed to do just a few basic tests equipped to conduct a few basic tests at this point.

We probably won’t have the technological capabilities to launch a legit space-mining operation for at least a few more decades, but by the time that 2011 UW158 circles back close to earth in 2108, there’s a good chance that Planetary Resources won’t be the only outfit waiting to catch it.

Editors' Recommendations

Drew Prindle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Drew Prindle is an award-winning writer, editor, and storyteller who currently serves as Senior Features Editor for Digital…
How astronomers worked together to spot an asteroid before it hit Earth
This time-lapse photograph was taken by astronomer Robert Weryk from near his home in London, Ontario, Canada, after NASA’s Scout system forewarned him about the entry of 2022 WJ1 on Nov. 19, 2022. The resulting fireball streaked directly overhead and continued east until it broke up.

This month, a small asteroid hurtled through space toward the Earth and entered the sky above Toronto. Even though it was only around a meter across and burnt up harmlessly in the atmosphere, this asteroid was notable because it was one of the first few asteroids to strike Earth that we knew was coming.

The asteroid, named 2022 WJ1, was first discovered by a project called the Catalina Sky Survey which uses a telescope at the Catalina Station near Tucson, Arizona. It was seen around four hours before it was due to strike Earth, making it just the sixth asteroid to date identified before impacting Earth. The detection was passed to a group called the Minor Planet Center which brings together international data on near-Earth objects and coordinates follow-up observations with astronomers around the world.

Read more
Astronomers spot a huge ‘planet killer’ asteroid between Earth and Venus
Twilight observations with the US Department of Energy-fabricated Dark Energy Camera at NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile have enabled astronomers to spot three near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) hiding in the glare of the Sun. These NEAs are part of an elusive population that lurks inside the orbits of Earth and Venus. One of the asteroids is the largest object that is potentially hazardous to Earth to be discovered in the last eight years.

In sinister news for a spooky day, astronomers announced that they have spotted a huge asteroid nearly a mile wide thst could one day intersect with Earth's path. The asteroid, along with two others, had been hiding in the glare from the sun, but was spotted using an Earth-based instrument called the Dark Energy Camera (DECam).

The three asteroids orbit between the orbits of Earth and Venus, but only the largest has an orbit that comes close to Earth's orbit. This one, named 2022 AP7, is the largest potentially hazardous asteroid discovered in eight years.

Read more
30,000 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered — and the search is on for more
Artist's impression of asteroid 21 Lutetia.

With NASA's DART mission recently succeeding in deflecting an asteroid from its course, you might think our planet is sorted when it comes to defense against incoming asteroids. But there are a whole lot of asteroids out there, and looking for potentially dangerous asteroids is an ongoing job.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are now more than 30,000 known near-Earth asteroids in our solar system. A near-Earth asteroid is defined as one that comes close to the Earth at some point in its orbit, as many asteroids have highly elliptical orbits that bring them closer to the sun at some times than at others. Astronomers use a measurement called an Astronomical Unit (AU), which is the distance between the sun and the Earth, and near-Earth asteroids are those that come within 1.3 AU of the sun.

Read more