Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Near Earth Miss

President Obama may have to fill in for Morgan Freeman one of these days:

Sky-watchers in Asia, Australia, and the Pacific islands welcomed a surprise guest Monday: an asteroid that passed just 41,010 miles (66,000 kilometers) above Earth.

Discovered only days ago, asteroid 2009 DD45 zipped between our planet and the moon at 13:44 universal time (8:44 a.m. ET). The asteroid was moving at about 12 miles (20 kilometers) a second when it was closest to Earth.

"We get objects passing fairly close, or closer than this, every few months," Timothy Spahr, director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts, said in an email.

"Also, though, note these are only the ones that are discovered. Many more pass this close undetected"—as asteroid 2009 DD45 nearly did.

Astronomers didn't notice the oncoming asteroid until February 28, when it showed up as a faint dot in pictures taken at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.

At that point the asteroid was already a mere 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) from Earth, and closing in fast.

This thing just missed us by 66,000 kilometers. To put that distance in perspective, the average distance to the moon from Earth is just over 384,000 km, about six times that distance. Now of course at only 20 to 50 meters wide (about the size of a 10 story building) this rock is nowhere near the size of the 10 km wide giant that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago (you can view a cool simulation of a similar event here) but consider this: it is roughly the same size as the object that is thought to have caused the Tunguska Blast a hundred years ago over Russia and that thing did some major damage.

We didn't even know about this thing until it was right on top of us and if there had been any chance of it hitting an inhabited area we would not have had any kind of plan in place to stop it. I've called attention in the past to how woefully unprepared we are for a possible asteroid strike of serious size but I'm afraid that only an event of significant destruction will rouse the people of this planet out of our big blue cocoon.

[Update: I forgot to include the link to this very well done commentary by Greg Easterbrook of The Atlantic magazine.]


Anonymous said...

No worries. My old roommate Grant (your fellow usher at my wedding) signed up for Petroleum Engineering solely due to Armageddon. If we're under any serious pressure, he will fly up there and drill that thing.

JBW said...

If he can guarantee that he's never missed a depth I'll count on him, because we don't have much else right now.

Van Zan said...

Sure we do... we have missiles pointed at each other to finish the job.
I wonder... when stuff like this happens does anyone even bother to do a feasibility study on a defense system?

There's a royal commission into the bushfires here starting up and it will turn over every facet of what happened to see what can be done in the future... Doesn't an asteroid rate the same reaction?