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Death from the Skies?

Death from the Skies?

asteroid earth
Artist rendering of asteroid heading toward earth Image credit: Seth Shostak

Are we about to be snuffed by a large space rock?

If you’ve been fretting about climate change, nuclear proliferation, the coronavirus, or dispiriting teenage acne, here’s something else to give your worry beads a workout.  A British tabloid – the Daily Express – announced this week that an asteroid about 3 miles in size will “close-in on Earth” at the end of April.  And that was just the start of the news.  What followed was truly ominous: namely, this object “could end human civilisation if it hits.”

That sounds like a bad day. After all, we all remember the asteroid that wasted the dinosaurs and two-thirds of every other earthly species about 66 million years ago.  Of course, that asteroid was larger.  But even if this rock doesn’t quite measure up to the Cretaceous-Tertiary’s legendary lizard killer, it would surely obliterate millions – either via the direct impact and blockage of the Sun by dust, or by causing the mother of all tsunamis if it landed in the ocean.

The asteroid’s moniker is 1998 OR2, which (as it name indicates) was found 22 years ago at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii as part of NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program.  Clearly, its appearance in our skies this month is no sneak attack. Rather, 1998 OR2 has been around the solar system block many times.  It’s orbit is well determined.

So that conditional phrase at the end of the Daily Express’ headline is key: “if it hits.”  And the experts are confident it’s not going to hit.  In fact, it doesn’t even make it into NASA’s list of potential future impactors – those objects it thinks are possibly dangerous.

1998 OR2’s closest approach will be on April 29, when it will slide by Earth at a minimum distance of 3.9 million miles. That’s like a car crossing your path about a mile in front of you.  Not terribly worrisome.

And I can’t help noticing that there’s a much bigger rock – one weighing in at 80 billion billion tons – that will be getting 16 times closer than 1998 OR2 this month.  It’s called the moon.

OK, so news flash: Maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you read.


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