Nov. 2, 2011 -- On Tuesday, a large asteroid will pass Earth within the moon's orbit, giving scientists a rare close-up of a space rock that could hold valuable clues to our planet's origins as well as our potential interplanetary future.
On Nov. 8, asteroid 2005 YU55 will come within approximately 201,700 miles of Earth, according to NASA. That's 0.85 the distance from Earth to the moon.
Asteroids often pass this close, but they are too small to spark much interest.
This one is 1,300 feet wide -- the size of an aircraft carrier. The last time an asteroid this big passed by was in 1976; the next one will be in 2028, NASA predicts.
Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., said this flyby is an opportunity to learn more about c-type -- that is, carbon-based -- asteroids in case one is threatening to hit us.
It will also offer "clues as to what it was like when our solar system was forming," Yeomans said.
Asteroids like this one likely delivered organic, carbon-based materials to Earth, enabling life.
"Without objects of this type, we probably wouldn't be here," he said.
Moreover, c-type asteroids could be resources for future space exploration. Because they often contain water resources and the compound that constitutes jet fuel, they could help us build "fuelling stations and watering holes for interplanetary travel," Yeomans said.
This event is particularly exciting to researchers because we can, from the comfort of our planet, study an object we previously have needed to send unmanned spacecraft to study. And we now have the technology to make the most of it, unlike in 1976.
Asteroid 2005 YU55 is roughly spherical, spinning slowly and darker than charcoal, according to past NASA radar observations.
Amateur stargazers can take a look at the asteroid if they have a reflecting telescope with a light-gathering mirror six inches or more in diameter.