An Asteroid For (Almost) Valentine’s Day

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February 8, 2013 by drandmrso

I read a fascinating article on NPR’s website: “Close Shave: Asteroid to Buzz Earth Next Week.” There’s an asteroid “the size of an office building,” rather un-poetically named 2012 DA14, that’s going to blow through the space between the Earth and the moon, coming closer to the planet than some of the weather satellites that are currently orbiting. That’s really close. Really, really close. Not quite as imminent a threat as was the giant hunk in Armageddon (and by giant hunk I obviously mean Ben Affleck):

Scientists say there’s no chance the asteroid buzzing by on February 15th will make impact on Earth. Which is great, since by NASA’s estimation a similar-sized asteroid landed in Russia in 1908 and leveled 750 square miles. By comparison, New York City is just under 470 square miles. Here are a couple of the FAQ’s from NASA’s site dedicated to 2012 DA14:

Q: Could asteroid DA14 impact Earth?

A: No. The orbit of asteroid 2012 DA14 is well understood – it will not come any closer than 17,150 miles (27,650 kilometers) above Earth’s surface during its flyby on Feb 15, 2013.

The asteroid’s orbit around the sun is roughly similar to that of Earth, and it makes relatively close approaches to our planet’s orbit twice per orbit. But, the 2013 flyby is by far the closest the asteroid will approach our planet for many decades. The next notable close approach to Earth will be on February 16, 2046, when the asteroid will pass no closer than 620,000 miles (1,000,000,000 kilometers) from the center-point of Earth.

Q: What makes 2012 DA14 special?

A: The flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 is the closest ever predicted Earth approach for an object this large.

Q: How many asteroids are out there similar in size to asteroid DA14?

 A: Scientists believe there are approximately 500,000 near-Earth asteroids the size of 2012 DA14. Of those, less than one percent have been discovered.

Q: How many times do asteroids the size of DA14 fly this close?

 A: Scientists at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office in Pasadena, Calif. estimate that an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 flies this close every 40 years on average and that one will impact Earth, on average, about once in every 1,200 years.

My favorite is “What makes 2012 DA14 Special?” If I worked for NASA I would have spiced up the answer a bit. Along the lines of, “Many things make this asteroid special. Every asteroid is special in its own way. This asteroid is extra sparkly, a lovely size, and is clearly a friendly and considerate near-Earth object that kindly will not wreak havoc and cause mass panic by crashing into our home planet.”

In all seriousness, though, the fact that there are only about 5,000 out of 500,000 potentially devastating asteroids out there that we know about is a rallying cry for better science education and funding internationally. NASA sees this event as a great opportunity for scientists to observe an asteroid up close (relatively speaking); but wouldn’t it be truly wonderful if the greater public had the same curiosity and vision–rather than the automatic fear of this astronomical event? And I’ll be the first to admit that I only read the NPR article because of the panic instinct that media and Hollywood have ingrained in me (and probably many others) regarding scientific anomalies.

The background whispering to this discussion is the hype being generated by groups that see asteroid mining as the wave of the future. Honestly–I don’t have a problem with mining on asteroids where there presumably aren’t atmospheres to pollute or bodies of water to contaminate. But what can we do as a society to make scientific discovery across all fields more about exploration and less about exploitation?

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Dr. O is an otorhinolaryngology resident. Mrs. O was an English major and is easily grossed out by blood and guts. This is the blog where Mrs. O documents their adventures in (not bloody) detail. Enjoy!

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