ESA's Christmas Asteroid Challenge Starts Now, Can You Find The Mystery Asteroid?

asteroid challenge illustration
In order to celebrate the release of it's asteroid toolkit, the European Space Agency (ESA) has issued a challenge to find a mystery asteroid. The Christmas asteroid poses no threat to Earth, but the agency says it does not know much about 2015 RN35, which presents an opportunity for learning more about it.

Sky-watchers have been privy to some amazing events this month, with the most recent being the Geminid meteor shower. The ESA is looking to add to that excitement with a challenge of its own. The space agency is celebrating its launch of four free tools to help amateur and professional astronomers alike better understand the small space rocks scattered throughout our Solar System, and the risk they may pose to Earth.

ESA Christmas asteroid flyby
ESA infographic of Christmas asteroid

The new near-Earth object (NEO) Toolkit enables users to visualize any asteroid's orbit, get illustrations of different groups and families of asteroids, as well as make plans for upcoming observations, and chart asteroid paths across the sky. The toolkit consists of four free tools: Orbit Visualization Tool, Observation Planning Tool, Sky Chart Display Tool, and the Flyby Visualization Tool.

earth in asteroid orbit
ESA's Orbit Visualization Tool

2015 RN35 should be making its safe and close approach to Earth on December 15, 2022. This brings the asteroid within approximately 686,000 km of our planet, or just under two lunar distances. Those in the Southern Hemisphere will have the best viewing experience during the close approach, but viewers in Europe and other parts of the world will have a chance at catching a glimpse in the days following until about December 19, 2022.

The ESA says that a 30 cm or larger telescope will be needed to be able to detect this Christmas asteroid. From December 15-17 the asteroid will have a magnitude below 14 (For reference, Pluto has a visual magnitude of 14). This makes the asteroid a bit of a challenge to detect. Being smaller than the Statue of Liberty, this asteroid is considered pretty small in terms of astronomical scale.

Asteroid danger explained
Asteroid danger explained

So why i s2015 RN35 is so interesting to the ESA? Well, in short, the organization notes it's because "there's not a single asteroid out there that isn't interesting," and these space rocks give "key insights into the composition and trajectory of potentially hazardous objects," according to the ESA's blog post. Also, this particular asteroid is not well known. The ESA says that it does not know precisely how big it is, or if it is spinning on its axis, etc.

In terms of the Christmas challenge, those who are able to spot 2015 RN35 over the coming days should share their findings on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit with the hashtag #ESAChristmasAsteroid, along with your information and location. If you happen to miss this close approach, there will be another on December 27, 2022, with similar visibility.