If aliens were to take a peek at how planet earth has been doing recently, I’m pretty sure they’d assume we were heading towards an apocalypse. In just the last month or so, the USA has been battered by hurricanes, several Asian countries have experienced extreme flooding, and (just to add insult to injury) a number of measures put in place to tackle global warming have been pulled.
At times I find myself asking: can it get any worse?
Well, the short answer is… yes. An asteroid estimated to be between 30 and 100 feet wide is heading very close to Earth this week, and it’s only set to miss us by a whisker (relatively speaking, that is). The space rock, known by the ever-so-catchy name, 2012 TC4, will pass the planet on October 12 at a distance of 27,000 miles above the surface. Ok, so this may seem pretty far away, but it’s actually eight times closer to Earth than the moon.
Bizarrely, though, researchers are actually very grateful for the close-call. Dr. Michael Kelley, a scientist with the NASA campaign assigned to observe TC4, explains that:
Scientists have always appreciated knowing when an asteroid will make a close approach to and safely pass the Earth because they can make preparations to collect data to characterize and learn as much as possible about it.
This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat.
This is not the first time TC4 has passed by, either. Five years ago, in 2012, the big old hunk of space stuff soared past our lowly planet at about double the distance of its imminent revisit. So it’s definitely getting closer to us; but will it be too close for comfort?
Rolf Densing, who is head of the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, iterated that the asteroid will be unnervingly close to some of Earth’s outer space assets – but not so close that we should have to worry about it: “The farthest satellites are 36,000 kilometres (22,400 miles) out, so this is indeed a close miss,” he told AFP. “As close as it is right now, I think this prediction is pretty safe, meaning that it will miss.”
If the asteroid did hit, however, it could cause catastrophic damage.
In 2013, a 59 foot asteroid hit the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, with the shockwave injuring approximately 1,500 people and causing damage to over 7,000 buildings. The force of its impact was estimated to be equivalent to 20 times the strength of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Scientists predict that, should the worst case scenario become reality, the asteroid would actually burn up before hitting the surface. Nevertheless, “It is something to keep an eye on,” according Dr Judit Györgyey-Ries, an astronomer at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, who added that: “we could see an airburst maybe broken windows, depending on where it hits.”
I guess we’re just going to have to accept that this is out of our control, and put our faith in scientific predictions. And, with regards to the things we can control, I think we owe it to our planet to take better care of the place.