Track 2011 MD’s near-collision with Earth with Sky Safari

If you knew the end of the world was coming, what would you do? Maybe you’d spend a few final romantic minutes with your loved one; perhaps you’d gather with others in your local place of worship. Given TMO’s readership, it’s a fair bet at least some of you would be pounding back pints of beer and stuffing peanuts into your face while those around you covered their heads in paper bags and found a comfortable spot on the floor to lie on.

But what if we were only going to come within 8,000 miles of it being the end of the world? Well, you’d want to download Sky Safari to your iPad or iPhone to track the fifth-closest asteroid flyby of all time, and the first ever to occur in the iOS era.

Sky SafariSky Safari on the iPad

Southern Stars has updated its star-gazing app to allow you to track 2011 MD, the benignly named, newly discovered asteroid that scientists say will pass within 8,000 miles of the Earth sometime today. Even better, the company is making both its Plus and Pro versions of Sky Safari half off for flyby day only — Monday, June 27th, to be precise.

If you decide to get (or already have) the app, here’s how to use it to keep tabs on 2011 MD:

Once you have the app, tap Settings > Solar System, then tap the Update Orbit Data button at the bottom. Wait a minute or so for the update to complete, depending on your internet connection speed.

Then Search for “2011 MD”. You’ll find three results. The first is the standard orbit published by the Minor Planet Center, and gives very inaccurate positions for the asteroid. For better results, Southern Stars has obtained two additional orbits for 2011 MD from noted orbital mechanics expert Bill Gray. To follow 2011 MD before the flyby, use the entry called “2011 MD Jun 26”. After the flyby, use “2011 MD Jun 27”. The asteroid comes so close to Earth that our planet’s gravity will fling it back into space, in nearly the same direction that it came from!

After selecting the right orbit, tap the Center button to center the asteroid on your iPhone screen. Tap the Time button to bring up the time flow controls. Then run the time forward to track the asteroid’s path across the sky, at one minute per step. Note: if the asteroid is below the horizon from your location, try making the horizon transparent (underSettings > Horizon & Sky.)

Closest approach happens around 1 PM EDT on Monday, June 27th. The actual event will be observable only from South Africa and parts of Antarctica, but the approach will be visible across Australia, New Zealand, southern and eastern Asia, and the western Pacific. You’ll need at least an 8-inch telescope to observe the event.

The Sky & Telescope Web site has a nice article about the event, and the Orbit@Home Web site has some cool animations showing the meteor’s path.

Even at half price, $29.99 is pretty pricey for a one-time event (The company points out that the Plus version of the app is also on sale for half price — $6.99 — and can track 2011 MD as well). But look at it this way: if scientists’ calculations are off and it turns out that 2011 MD slams into the Earth after all, you’re going to look pretty smart for not hoarding the money.

Well, to the cockroaches and mutant-humanoids who survive at least.

To download SkySafari 3 Pro now, just go to the iTunes-based App Store.