The Great Pumpkin in Space

by Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom

Asteroid to narrowly miss Earth on Halloween” screams the teaser on a major news site. Talk about haunting headlines! That is, until you read on to learn that the “near miss” is expected to be by roughly 300,000 miles. To put it in perspective, that's farther than the distance from our planet to the Moon. In fact, NASA’s less startling take on the story is that an asteroid is expected to safely fly past Earth on October 31, 2015. You can have a meaty discussion with your students about the two different headlines. How should science news be reported? Which headline do they prefer? Why might an organization run such a sensational headline?

Formally known as Asteroid 2015 TB145, it’s commonly referred to as the Great Pumpkin. Even though the Great Pumpkin will be a safe distance from Earth, it will pass close enough to be widely studied. It’s currently thought to be up to 800 meters wide, but NASA will learn more about its surface features, shape, dimensions and other physical properties as it whizzes by.

In fact, if your school has a strong enough telescope, you may be able to spot it. The anticipated nearest flyby time is 1:18 pm Eastern Time. But if it’s not possible to stop and look (it won’t be visible to the naked eye), gather your class round to watch the virtual telescope will also provide real-time online viewing of the event. What a great Halloween treat for scientists of all ages!

According to some, the Great Pumpkin’s speed, more than 78,000 miles per hour, suggests it might actually be a comet. What’s the difference between the two? Here’s a quick review:

  • Comet- a celestial body made mostly of ice and dust
  • Asteroid- a celestial body made up of rock and metals or minerals
  • Meteor- a piece of rock or metal that burns brightly in the sky as it falls from outer space into the Earth's atmosphere
  • Meteoroid- a small body in outer space that, if it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, would become a meteor
  • Meteorite a part of a meteor that survives its passage through the Earth's atmosphere and strikes the ground. More than 90 percent of meteorites are of rock, while the remainder consists wholly or partly of iron and nickel.

NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Group keeps a watch these types of objects. Your class can also keep an eye on NEO by following @AsteroidWatch on Twitter.

Maybe one of your students will create a system for deflecting potentially catastrophic asteroids away from Earth? Or perhaps one of them will envision a system for mining the metals on asteroids? These sounds like ripe topics for American’s next Top Young Scientist to explore.

Don’t miss this post full of Halloween science tricks and treats