Recently, NASA used its Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer to create a map of known asteroids that could present a hazard to Earth in the future. It turns out that, for now, we’re safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t close calls in our future. A newly discovered asteroid called 2012 DA14 will pass so close to our planet next that it might take out a communications satellite in a sort of intergalactic hit and run.
2012 DA14 was discovered several weeks ago by astronomers at the LaSagra Observatory in Spain. It appears as a fuzzy little blob in a telescope, and it’s pretty small in real life, too, coming in at just 150 feet wide. But it’s not as innocuous as we’d like. It’s currently on an Earthlike, which means it will be continue making close passes by Earth on a regular basis.
Its next pass will come on February 15, 2013, and it will be close. The International Space Station, which sits in low-Earth orbit no higher than about 1,200 miles up, is safe. But satellites tend to orbit higher, and they aren’t safe from asteroid hits. It’s unlikely, but scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory can’t rule out the possibility that the asteroid will come close enough to hit a satellite.
The problem is that astronomers are still learning about the rock and its path through space. Where exactly it will be next February is a bit of a mystery to astronomers, but they’re confident that it won’t fall from the sky. If anything, it will pass close enough that keen-eyed observers will catch a glimpse of it with telescopes or binoculars. It’s incredibly rare for an object so small to be seen as it grazes the planet.
Close, but no cigar.
The possibility of 2012 DA14 hitting the Earth on a subsequent flyby is equally slim. Currently, astronomers give an impact a 0.031 percent chance. That figure isn’t set in stone. It could get higher after astronomers study the asteroid on its flyby next year. Only once it passes Earth will they know how much the planet’s gravity has affected its orbit. From there, they will be able to make a much better prediction of its next flyby. While the 2013 flyby is a great viewing opportunity for us, it’s a greater research opportunity for astronomers.
2012 DA14’s next pass by Earth will be in 2020, and it’s already plotted to be a much closer call.
If the asteroid does hit in 2020, it won’t devastate civilization – it’s thankfully too small. It will also approach the Earth from the south making the unpopulated areas of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean its most likely targets. Damage from the impact would be minimal but still significant. If it were to hit land, the impact of the 140,000-ton rock would release energy equivalent to a 2.4-megaton explosion.That’s about as powerful as the 1908 Tunguska blast. The mysterious event that razed hundred of square miles of Siberian forest was likely caused by an asteroid or comet impact. If the asteroid were to land in the ocean, it would produce a fairly small tsunami.
On the plus side, at least we know about 2012 DA14 now. If it turns out we’re in for a hit in 202, there’s plenty of time to stage an Armageddon-like mission to deflect the asteroid and save the planet.