Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Near-miss asteroid expected to return in 2013

Article author: Alwyn Ash

There may not be a Deep Impact-type event as yet, but the dangers of a collision with Earth are undeniable.

On 22nd February 2012 an asteroid that would become known as 2012 DA14 passed our planet at an approx. distance of seven times that of the Moon. However, fresh studies indicate that the foreign body could pass Earth next year at just 24,000 km (14,912 miles) - much closer than any commercial satellites.

Detlef Koschny, head of the NEO (Near Earth Objects) at the Space Situational Awareness, says, "This is a safe distance, but it is still close enough to make the asteroid visible in normal binoculars. We are developing a system of automated optical telescopes that can detect asteroids just like this one, with the goal of being able spot them at least three weeks before closest approach to Earth."

The 2012 DA14, which is 50m long, is due on 15th February 2013.

So what are the chances of a collision in the future? While an impact with Earth is ruled out on the asteroid’s 2013 visit, astronomers will take advantage of its close approach to study and calculate possible problems, like how the Earth and Moon’s gravitational forces effect its path.

Koschny adds, "We will also be keen to see the asteroid’s resulting orbit after the next close approach in order to compute any future risk of impact."

It is estimated that at least half a million undiscovered near-Earth objects up to 30m across are out there, just waiting.

If we do discover that a body is in direct impact with our planet, what options are there? Re-routing the rock’s trajectory clear of Earth is certainly doable, but would require time and unprecedented planning. An attempt at destroying the asteroid could result in break-up and displacement, which would be impossible to predict.