Earthlings looking for something to take their minds off the coronavirus now have a giant asteroid to think about.
While experts say there is no cause for alarm, the asteroid was classified as a potentially hazardous object because it passes near Earth’s orbit. However, it’s not currently on NASA’s list of potential future Earth impact events.
But its size has inspired plenty of “what if” scenarios.
The asteroid is called 52768 (1998 OR2). It will fly by Earth on April 29, at 4:56 a.m. EDT, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. It is estimated to be between 1.1 and 2.5 miles wide and is predicted to pass within about 3.9 million miles of Earth moving at nearly 20,000 mph.
“That’s a good size asteroid. That would definitely be an Earth killer,” said Louis Coban, electronic technician/administrator of the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory. “That would probably destroy or really alter life as we know it.”
For comparison’s sake, the meteor that famously broke up over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013 was a small asteroid, a fraction of the size of the one due for a flyby next month. It nevertheless generated a shock wave that shattered glass and injured about 1,200 people.
Coban said the chances are extremely slim that this new asteroid will come close to hitting the Earth, meaning not only will we not feel it we probably won’t even be able to see it.
“It’s going to be close, 20 times the distance from here to the moon, but not horribly close,” Coban said. “The magnitude brightness is 15.8 which is pretty faint. (The brightest objects in the sky have magnitude brightness in the negative numbers.) That coupled with the fact that it’s moving pretty fast.”
The asteroids that most concern Coban are the ones that show up out of nowhere like the one in Chelyabinsk.
“They’re farther and farther between now because we do have a lot telescopes that are scanning the skies constantly,” he said. “A lot of times those big telescopes will pick those things up. Sometimes we don’t see these things visually. They get picked up on radar. But by that time, they’re passing us by.”
NASA and other agencies have undertaken missions to study near-Earth asteroids and ways to mitigate the danger of a collision.
So, between now and April 29, perhaps the best advice we can take is from the classic science fiction movie, “The Thing from Another World.”
“Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”