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Near Earth Asteroid (154244) 2002 KL6 was discovered by the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program, which was funded by NASA, lead by JPL, and ran until April 2007. The asteroid was found using telescopes at Haleakala on Maui (where LCOGT has its 2-meter Faulkes Telescope North ). 2002 KL6 was discovered on 27 May 2002.
2002 KL6 orbits the Sun about every 3.5 years and is what is known as an Amor asteroid. These are a subset of the Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that get close to the Earth but do not cross the Earth’s path. An interesting fact is that Amor asteroids could have their orbits nudged by another planet in the future, which could send them onto an orbit that does cross that of the Earth - a fate which may await 2002 KL6 in the far away future. At present, the closest approach (you can see the full list of dates from the JPL Small Bodies Database) that 2002 KL6 will make to the Earth is on 2030 August 2 when it will be 0.0624 AU (1 AU is the average distance from the Sun to the Earth) or about 5.8 million miles from the Earth. On this current close approach to Earth, it will only get as close as 6.3 million miles on 2016 July 22.
We know a little bit about this asteroid (but are always keen to learn more!). From it’s brightness, we can estimate that is it about 1.1 km (0.7 miles) across although this is somewhat uncertain as we don’t know whether the asteroid is big and dark (like coal or tarmac) or more reflective and smaller as the asteroid will appear the same brightness is both cases.
We also know that the asteroid rotates in about 4.3 hours - so 2002 KL6’s ‘day’ is 5.5 times shorter than the Earth’s ! Because we know that the brightness changes as it rotates, we also know that 2002 KL6 must be elongated (like a potato or a banana) and not round (like an orange) as the size of the reflecting surface area changes, making it appear brighter or dimmer depending on whether we see it large side-on or small end-on.
Some of the things that we hope to learn from this close approach is whether the asteroids’ rotation rate has changed since it was last measured in 2014. We can do this by taking lots of images of the asteroid as it moves across the sky and measuring the brightness as it changes with time. The astronomers at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar (part of the Deep Space Network) in California will be using the planetary radars to bounce radar beams off the asteroid when it comes closest to the Earth at the end of July 2016. In the same way that air traffic control radars can give the precise position and speed of airplanes, the planetary radar measurements will be able to give us very precise measurements of the NEO and improve our knowledge of 2002 KL6’s orbit, helping to predict where it will be in the future and whether it has any chance to cross another planet’s path and be moved towards the Earth.
The planetary radars will also be able to make images of 2002 KL6, which will allow us to get a much more precise measurement of the size and shape of the asteroid. These observations will also allow us to look for satellites in orbit around the asteroid.