This is the question that keeps cropping up, and it deserves an answer. Images are being posted showing the fragments and they look like ordinary chondrites of asteroidal origin. This material is dark, and not very reflective, which makes it difficult to spot out in outer space, especially if the object is bus or house size.
Astronomers measure brightnesses in magnitudes — the larger, more positive the number, the fainter the object is. The Sun is magnitude -27, the planet Venus -4, the star Vega 0, and the faintest star you can see is about +6. The best asteroid survey telescopes have a magnitude limit of about +24, which is about 16 million times fainter than what you can see with the unaided eye.
We can now use the latest orbit determined by Dave Clark (and yes, the meteor came roughly from the East, not from the North as stated in the initial NASA reports) and combine it with the estimated size and reflectivity to figure out when we should have seen the meteoroid in the asteroid survey telescopes. The calculations can be displayed in a graph like this one. Note that, even with very large telescopes, the meteoroid would not have been visible until a mere 2 hours (135,000 km from Earth) before impact — very little time to sound a warning.
Even if we had been looking at the right spot and the right time, there is another problem — the meteoroid would be in the daylit sky, and telescopes cannot see faint objects in the daytime.
Simply put, the meteoroid was too small for the survey telescopes and came at us out of the Sun.
According to NASA scientists, the trajectory of the Russian meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, making it a completely unrelated object. Information is still being collected about the Russian meteor and analysis is preliminary at this point. In videos of the meteor, it is seen to pass from left to right in front of the rising sun, which means it was traveling from north to south. Asteroid DA14’s trajectory is in the opposite direction, from south to north.
This is the most common question we are asked, and the answer is “maybe.” It all depends on where you are located and what sort of equipment you have.
Closest approach will be around 19:25 UTC on February 15; this will be when the asteroid will be at its brightest. Even at this time, when 2012 DA14 is only about 17,000 miles above Earth’s surface, it will not be visible to the unaided eye due to its small size. Observers in Indonesia (which is favored to see close approach) will need binoculars to catch a glimpse of the asteroid as it moves rapidly through the sky.
The rest of us will need to use a telescope. In North America, 2012 DA14 will be no brighter than magnitude 11 when the Sun sets on the 15th. This is over 60 times fainter than the faintest star you can see with your eyes under perfect sky conditions. Also, it will still be moving quickly through the constellations — over 3 degrees (6 Moon diameters) per hour — and this speed, combined with its fading, will make it a challenging target, even for experienced amateurs. Algorithms in many of the software programs used to drive telescopes are not suited for fast movers like this one, and may point the telescope in the wrong locations (A test we conducted using a popular software package showed that it would point the telescope over a degree away from the actual position of DA14, well outside the one half degree field of view of most instruments). So seeing 2012 DA14 before it fades beyond the limit of most amateur telescopes will not be a simple task; it will require some thought and advanced planning. An invaluable tool in planning your observations is the JPL Horizons website (http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov), which can calculate the precise positions of 2012 DA14 for your location.
So can I see 2012 DA 14? The answer is yes — if you have access to a decent telescope, if you take the time to figure out where you need to look in advance, and if your sky is clear. A lot of work, but the reward is a glimpse of a house-size visitor from another part of the Solar System as it whizzes by our planet at a distance closer than many of the communications satellites we depend upon in our daily lives. A rare event, to be sure.
Those without telescope access may also get a glimpse. NASA will be streaming the latter part of the asteroid flyby on Ustream at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-msfc – if the skies are clear in Alabama and the MSFC-based telescope can view DA14, you can use the Internet to get a peek at 2012 DA14 (which will look like a fast moving star) from the comfort of your home.