Near Misses

Here’s a recent Google Science News headline:

NASA Alert: Airburst-Causing Asteroid Currently Headed For Earth

Now here are the basics of the story:

According to NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), the asteroid that’s currently approaching Earth is known as 2020 BW13. As indicated in the agency’s database, this asteroid has an estimated diameter of about 66 feet. CNEOS noted that it is currently flying towards Earth at a speed of around 5,400 miles per hour.

And the followup:

Fortunately, CNEOS noted that 2020 BW13 is not in danger of hitting Earth during its upcoming visit. According to the agency, this asteroid will fly past Earth on Feb. 24 at 11:10 a.m. EST from a distance of 0.02333 astronomical units or roughly 2.2 million miles away.

All this accompanied by a lurid artists conception thus:

asteroid
Image: Artist illustration of an asteroid heading for the Earth Photo: Pixabay

Notice anything wrong about this illustration? A flaming asteroid is headed right for earth. Only it is still probably (my rough guess) about 100,000 miles away and thus has not struck the atmosphere, which is what would cause it to appear in flames, though only for a very brief time.

The obviously stupid illustration is still not the real problem with this report. As noted above, this particular asteroid will pass by at a distance of 2.2 million miles. An earlier report of another such object was expected to pass at 3.6 million miles! Yet Google insisted that such a close encounter was knuckle-biting nerve shattering event.

Let’s put this in perspective. To get it down to something comprehensible, scale it down so that 1 inch = 1,000 miles. At that scale, the earth would be the size of a large grapefruit -very large. That is about 8 inches in diameter. The moon would be a golf ball about 2 feet away. The asteroid in question would pass by 183 feet away. The earlier object would have passed at 300 feet away! Now imagine the earth at the center of an archery target (the preferred method to avoid traumatizing the fire arms phobics). At any respectable distance, you would be hard pressed to miss the entire target by 180-300 feet!

This isn’t science! This isn’t even junk science! It is just junk and this from the Google News service that, along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like, endlessly bloviate about fake news and accuracy. Really? We deserve better. (For more check the Google story.)

Now, approaching asteroids are a matter of concern, just not these instances. Their orbits and positions are well enough known that it is possible to point a telescope at a position and take a photo at a predetermined time and stand a good chance of capturing an image. What is so nerve shattering about that?

However, these are known as earth crossing objects, meaning that they periodically intersect the earth’s path. They are a potential threat but not right now. There are, however, two of real concern, Apophis and Bennu. Check out this headline and story from space.com.

Huge Asteroid Apophis Flies By Earth on Friday the 13th in 2029.

Apophis is much bigger than those recent objects, big enough to be called a planet killer. The greatest concern is that it might pass by at just the right point to set it up for a collision on the next pass, sometime in 2036. Mark your calendar. That might just be a real knuckle biter.

Asteroid Bennu, about half the size of Apophis, will make a close approach in 2060. It is currently under close examination from Osiris-Rex probe. A landing it planned in the near future.

Finally, the Wikipedia entry laconically notes,

On average, an asteroid with a diameter of 500 m (1,600 ft; 0.31 mi) can be expected to impact Earth about every 130,000 years or so.

Stand by…

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