150-foot asteroid to zip past Earth next week

February 7, 2013 7:32:57 PM PST
You may have heard that an asteroid is heading for Earth. NASA released a report on Thursday that was both unsettling and reassuring, because the agency said it would miss our planet.

It's another rock, as they call it. And if you were sitting on it right now, planet Earth would be getting bigger. The best way of looking at this might be -- if our instruments weren't so good, we would never know how lucky we are; at least, for the foreseeable future.

It wasn't so long ago that mankind lived in blissful ignorance. Then we learned that the Earth is round and flies through space, and is in fact a moving target.

"The Earth exists in a cosmic shooting gallery," said Dr. David Morrison, Ph.D., of NASA Ames Research Center. He is more cognizant than most of us. Morrison is an expert on asteroids, which makes him a perfect source for background on a space rock known as 2012 DA14, which will zip past Earth on February 15th. Never heard of it?

"This one is really cool because it's coming so close," Dr. Morrison said.

A mere 17,000 miles or so; the closest pass of an asteroid we have ever detected. At least among the ones that didn't hit us.

"Just look at the craters on the moon and you can see the history of the Earth over four billon years," Dr. Morrison said.

In 1908 an asteroid this size exploded above Siberia with a force 1,000 times stronger than the first atom bomb. It wiped out 800 square miles.

2012 DA14 is slightly larger, measuring roughly 50 meters long, about the size of a building. We know this because NASA has a complex system to track such objects.

"We found almost 10,000," Dr. Morrison said. "But there are many more we have not found." When asked if we've identified all those that pose a threat, he answered, "We've identified all those that are a mile and bigger, and none of them are on a collision course with Earth."

So you see, now that we know, we can also breathe sighs of relief. An object this size hits only once every thousand years or so. But don't go counting your lucky stars just yet, because if one of them were to hit above San Francisco, Dr. Morrison says, "It would kill a million people." And if it landed in Nevada he says, "It would be a tourist attraction."

On the positive side, there is no chance of this new asteroid returning. As it passes by, the earth's gravity will bend its orbit out of any potential harm's way; a case of dodging the cosmic bullet, and then deflecting it.

The asteroid - considered small - will come closer to Earth than many high-flying communication satellites. It will be visible through binoculars or telescopes as it zooms by at 17,400 mph. The best viewing location will be Indonesia. Other prime viewing spots are Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia.

The asteroid was discovered last February.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story)


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