An asteroid roughly the size of three football fields is scheduled to zip passed Earth tonight at 27,000 miles an hour. At its closest, Near-Earth asteroid 2000 EM26 is estimated to pass only 8.8 lunar distances from our modest little planet. The online Slooh Space Camera will be running a streaming video of the flyby at 9pm EST, with a webcast discussion moderated by Slooh's technical and research director Paul Cox, astronomer Bob Berman, and Dr. Mark Boslough, an expert on planetary impacts and global catastrophes.
“We continue to discover these potentially hazardous asteroids—sometimes only days before they make their close approaches to Earth," Cox said in a statement about the event. “Slooh's asteroid research campaign is gathering momentum with Slooh members using the Slooh robotic telescopes to monitor this huge population of potentially hazardous space rocks. We need to find them before they find us!"
We second that sentiment, especially considering that tonight's close shave with 2000 EM26 coincides closely with the anniversary of last year's asteroid mania. On February 15th, 2013, astronomers prepared for an nerve-wracking visit from 2012 DA14, an asteroid weighing about 40,000 tons that streaked passed Earth way too close for comfort. Indeed, it ended up missing Earth by only 17,200 miles, such a tiny margin that it actually passed under the orbits of our geosynchronous satellites.
The close call with 2012 DA14 was supposed to be the big asteroid news of that day. But in a weird twist, a meteor exploded in the atmosphere 18 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia on the same day. The Chelyabinsk meteor, which had been traveling at almost 43,000 miles an hour and measured 65 feet in diameter, blasted the equivalent energy of 20 atom bombs into the Siberian skies. Unlike 2012 DA14, this impact was a total surprise.
A compilation of shots of the Chelyabinsk meteor. Video: Tuvix72/YouTube
Glass was shattered and thousands were injured, but fortunately nobody was killed. To commemorate their luck, ten of the Olympic gold medals presented to athletes last Saturday (the anniversary of the impact) were decorated with the meteor's fragments. It would seem that for the past few years, Earth has been getting a lot of cosmic attention around Valentine's Day. But it would be great if next year, the universe could just send a bouquet of roses instead of hurtling giant rocks at our painfully vulnerable planet.
Along those lines, the perennial topic of how to protect our planet from the ultimate existential threat–death by space rock–will no doubt be a major point of discussion in tonight's webcast. “On a practical level, a previously unknown, undiscovered asteroid seems to hit our planet and cause damage or injury once a century or so, as we witnessed on June 30, 1908 and February 15, 2013,” said Berman in Slooh's press release. (The 1908 impact he refers to was the Tunguska event, which also hit Siberia, further cementing the region's frontrunner status as one of the unluckiest places in the world.)
But Berman's real concern are the less common but more destructive whopper asteroids, like the impact that axed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. “Every few centuries, an even more massive asteroid strikes us—fortunately usually impacting in an ocean or wasteland such as Antarctica,” he explained. “But the ongoing threat, and the fact that biosphere-altering events remain a real if small annual possibility, suggests that discovering and tracking all NEOs, as well as setting up contingency plans for deflecting them on short notice should the need arise, would be a wise use of resources.”
As people with a vested interest in avoiding death at the hands of random cosmic fireballs, we are inclined to agree with that assessment. But at least if the worst comes to worst, we'll be able to watch our own impending incineration courtesy of Slooh's fancy webcams.