WARNING! The NASA asteroid tracker has identified a 390-foot rock taller than Big Ben’s clock tower (315 feet) that is bearing down on Earth – and will miss us by 231,920 miles. [YAWN.]
Given that the average diameter of the planet is just under 8000 miles, on its present course, the space rock will come no closer than if you placed 29 Earths side by side.
In the vastness of space, that’s a near miss. But for most of us humans, it’s no big whoop.
To sell papers, news headlines sensationalize the rather dull scientific reality that nothing is actually going to happen with hyperbole such as “asteroid will scrape by” or “barrel” or “graze” or “swoop” and “threaten” planetary existence – but, so far, we have never read about a killer asteroid that will “wipe out life as we know it” – so party like it’s 1999!
Sometimes, it’s hard to take the folks at National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) seriously. The whole moon landing debate – did we go or not? – continues to cast doubt on the space exploration agency’s original primary purpose: land men on the moon. (You’ll note that no women have walked on the moon’s surface. But I digress.)
The U.S. space organization has an iffy reputation, based on insider information, for regularly employing deceptive practices such as airbrushing raw images from outer space cameras to hide features unfit for public consumption.
Among the cynical and joking nicknames for NASA are:
No Actual Space Aviation
Not A Space Agency
Never Access Space Again
You get the idea.
NASA gets oodles of federal funding. Congress budgeted $21.5 billion to NASA in fiscal year 2019, its biggest endorsement in ten years.
The U.S. space agency has built an asteroid tracking system with planetary defense teams to operate them.
On April 29, 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine talked about prioritizing the science of planetary defense to shield the Earth from powerful asteroid impacts that could either ruin our days – or our lives – or the planet.
Bridenstine referred to a meteor which penetrated the planetary atmosphere and split apart over Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013. The “small” asteroid was approximately as big as a six-story building. The resultant blast was detected from monitoring stations as far away as Antarctica and measured stronger than a nuclear explosion:
“The shock wave it generated shattered glass and injured about 1,200 people. Some scientists think the meteor was so bright it may have briefly outshone the sun.”
Because such a relatively small space rock (small compared to the size of the Earth) can release such tremendous force, international space agencies are keen on monitoring small bodies in space on a path toward Earth.
In an interesting side note, on the same day that the Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded, a second asteroid named 2012 DA14 was doing a simultaneous fly-by. The space boulder came within 17,200 miles of Earth and traveled in the opposite direction from the Chelyabinsk meteor.
It was after the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteorite blast that NASA set up a Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) which interprets data from its Near-Earth Object observations program to track and characterize potentially hazardous objects in near space.
Although no threatening asteroids have been spotted, to date, the PDCO would coordinate an official U.S. response to such a hazard.
In the summer of 1998, NASA established the Near-Earth Object Observations Program and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, became the home for the agency’s research data and analysis on the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Program Office.
On June 22, 2019, a scientist at the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at JPL detected a tiny, harmless object that broke up in the atmosphere in a bright flash. An automated alert of a potential NEO came in moments before. NASA planetary defense teams used the opportunity to test their components of the alert system.
The University of Hawaii’s ATLAS survey telescope on Maunaloa in Hawaii identified the tiny (compared to the size of Earth) 16-foot asteroid which was designated as 2019 MO.
Then, to test their system, the NASA planetary protectors submitted the ATLAS data to “the NASA-funded Minor Planet Center (the worldwide data processing node for asteroid observations) and immediately assessed by automated impact-analysis software, called Scout, at JPL. Scout quickly identified a possible impact. The observations were too few to provide certainty but did show the size would be far too small to be of concern.”
That same day, June 22, NASA informed the world that a larger asteroid had buzzed Earth in the closest approach ever logged. 2019 LM1, as it was named, was calculated to be up to 134 feet wide, more than twice as big as the Chelyabinsk meteorite.
If you want to get your geek on, visit the JPL NEO Earth Close Approaches web page to see data on every NEO detected and cataloged. Find out the date and time of closest Earth approach, the most likely and minimum possible close-approach distance from Earth, velocity, estimated diameters, and much more spacey info.
Rest assured, despite any quasi-apocalyptic NASA-related headlines, that asteroid 2019 OD, although racing along at almost 43,000mph, will come no closer than 0.92 Lunar Distances (LD), where one Lunar Distance measures the distance to the Moon (252,000 miles). As stated at the beginning of this article, that’s a miss of 231,920 miles.
The fact is that if Earth were struck by an asteroid of any significant size we can all kiss our you-know-what’s goodbye and plan to join the dinosaurs in Extinction Land, planetary defense system or no.
Did we mention that another tongue-in-cheek meaning for NASA, the $21.5 billion taxpayer-funded boondoggle, is Never a Straight Answer?