An asteroid the size of a football field
June 20, 2002 9:45 AM   Subscribe

An asteroid the size of a football field just missed the Earth last Friday. Coming in fast out of the sun, where we ain't watching, it missed us by an astro-paltry 75,000 miles (a third the distance to the Moon). If it had hit, the impact would have been about 10 megatons -- not a planet-killer, but enough to spoil your picnic.

In related news, Attorney General Ashcroft arrested a box of moon rocks and the entire staff of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA for questioning. The director of the Office of Orbital Security was at a pro-am golf tournament in Fond du Lac, WI and unavailable for a statement.
posted by anser (39 comments total)
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posted by fleener at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2002

anybody know of any reported ufo sightings around that time due to people seeing an unusually bright and unfamiliar object in the sky?
posted by sixtwenty3dc at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2002

But where would it have hit? I wouldn't want to lose my cookies.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:55 AM on June 20, 2002

You see, with just a little effort, every post can be an Asscroft post.

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So does Metafilter. I notice that doesn't stop you from logging in.
posted by mcwetboy at 10:05 AM on June 20, 2002

It's on the BBC website too.
posted by imh at 10:07 AM on June 20, 2002

had it hit Earth the event would have been been "Tunguska-like," with a force rivaling the largest H-bombs. The object was too small, however, to be classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA).

ummmm, yikes. what exactly do they consider "potentially hazardous"?
posted by zoopraxiscope at 10:13 AM on June 20, 2002

Perhaps the asterioid was purchased at Villain Supply?
posted by thebigpoop at 10:14 AM on June 20, 2002

Honestly, fleener, how do you decide which cookie-requiring sites are worthy of your attention? What is it about cookies that innately drives you to avoid (some) sites that use them?
posted by delfuego at 10:17 AM on June 20, 2002

Good thing it didnt hit Islamabad.

Why is the trajectory a straight line. Shouldnt it have been deflected by Earth's gravity well?
posted by vacapinta at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2002

Sky and Telescope is a reputable mag and worth a lil cooky. (G.A.R.B. if you want control over that part of your life)

Anyway here are some other key links for hair whitening during your copious free time:posted by anser at 10:20 AM on June 20, 2002

Didn't something similar just happen a few months ago? Are astronomers getting better at noticing these things, or is the media just picking up on reports more because of the recent movies about asteroids hitting us, or is some alien on the other side of the sun trying to kill us or what?
posted by straight at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2002

One word: eek.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:23 AM on June 20, 2002

I think we have been pretty oblivious of these events until the recent past.
posted by thekorruptor at 10:46 AM on June 20, 2002

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I regularly surf with Mozilla with the 'let me decide whether to accept cookies' option turned on. If I'm pretty sure the site doesn't need cookies for something like login, eCommerce, etc., I always choose 'never accept cookies for this site' when the cookie dialog pops up (I occasionally have to go back and allow cookies in a site where I previously rejected them).

Practically every site wants to set a cookie, and almost always, rejecting the cookie doesn't hamper my surfing of a site. The fact that SkyandTelescope wants to set a cookie is no big deal; the fact that it throws me out for not accepting their stupid cookie is puzzling.

I might still visit such a site (I'm not particularly dogmatic about it), but by the time I've discovered that I have to allow cookies, I've already told my browser never to accept them from that site, and changing that decision is a minor pain, enough to make me give up or go elsewhere most of the time.
posted by tippiedog at 11:02 AM on June 20, 2002

ummmm, yikes. what exactly do they consider "potentially hazardous"?

I think that in this instance 'potentially hazardous' can be translated as 'potentially wiping out all human life on earth.'

Nonetheless, a scary close-call. We humans need to get our shit together and:

a) Fund a large, comprenhensive survey of all near-earth asteroids

b) Accelerate space programs worldwide to hasten the time it will take to have a viable and self-sustaining human population on Mars or elsewhere in the event that earth gets impacted by an asteroid large enough to kill everyone on the planet.
posted by rbellon at 11:07 AM on June 20, 2002

"[H]ad it hit Earth the event would have been been 'Tunguska-like,' with a force rivaling the largest H-bombs. "

Except that Tunguska wasn't hit by an asteroid. [Or at least some people don't think so.]
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:09 AM on June 20, 2002

rbellon, why? If it happens that an asteroid destorys life (human and otherwise) on the planet, no one will be here to care.
posted by Dick Paris at 11:14 AM on June 20, 2002

just a random question for you astroidophiles out there: would it have been worse for earth if the astroid has hit the moon? like would our tides go out of wack or every fifth person turn into a werewolf or something?
posted by gwint at 11:24 AM on June 20, 2002

Under the Earth-Moon-Sun configuration in effect at the time, if it had hit the Moon we might never have known it, because it would almost certainly have been on the far side where we couldn't see it.
posted by anser at 11:41 AM on June 20, 2002

yeah, i heard something similar about destablizing the earth's rotational axis, but like with high yield nukes from space.

see, this is why we need missile defense!

also, i heard someplace that the earth's magnetic poles are due for a flip. i'm hoping for a trifecta :)
posted by kliuless at 11:41 AM on June 20, 2002

Why is this even news-worthy?

As if we don't have enough people scaring us about things happening right here in our own backyard, now they want us to worry about something over which we have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTROL. It's not like we can all get out and push the earth over to the side of the road to get out of its way.

I am sick of the news media's hyper-focus on frightening the livin' bejeesus out of everyone just to sell a few more ads. Even more, I am sick of people who use these news stories to try to scare everyone around them so they feel validated in their fear.

A few weeks ago vowed to turn the channel whenever a security alert is mentioned on CNN/MSBNC/Local News. The warnings are worse than worthless as they don't provide any information, but only seek to make us all a bunch of frightened rabbits huddling in our holes.
posted by dewelch at 11:44 AM on June 20, 2002

People used to think that the impact that created Bruno crater on the moon was observed by English monks in the year 1178...but maybe not. (Article does have some answers to your question.)
posted by gimonca at 11:46 AM on June 20, 2002



posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:48 AM on June 20, 2002

like would...every fifth person turn into a werewolf or something?

Yes, that is exactly what would happen. Scientists are virtually unanimous in asserting that we would be unable to filter out the lycanthropoidal rays emitted from such a collision. Well, some say it would affect every fourth person.

now they want us to worry about something over which we have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTROL.

The point, actually, is that with a little effort (okay, a LOT of effort and money) we COULD have some control over these events. Homeland defense, indeed.


posted by rushmc at 11:58 AM on June 20, 2002

t's not like we can all get out and push the earth over to the side of the road to get out of its way.

But we can push large asteroids just a little bit which would turn a potential collision into a harmless flyby. We don't have the technology yet, but the US didn't have the technology to get to the moon in, say, '61 either. NASA could be developing mass drivers and other asteroid pushers with the proper kick in pants.

I completely disagree with your analysis of the media. Religious doomsday cults and three-legged dogs shooting lay ups get 1,000 times the press these asteroids get. Maybe people do have to much to worry about, but they're worrying about the wrong things.
posted by skallas at 12:20 PM on June 20, 2002

Seems to me that skallas's idea about the mass drivers is a much better use of NASA bucks than the space shuttle. By the way, why didn't the Tunguska impact, whatever it was, leave a crater? No one ever talks about a crater. Just all those trees, flattened like the nap of my carpet under where the dog was lying.
posted by Faze at 12:33 PM on June 20, 2002

dewelch, lay off the caffeine a while, OK? Would you prefer news media focused on meaningless things irrelevant to your personal fear space, like presidential blowjobs and missing congressional interns?

The fact is Near Earth Asteroids are finally something we actually could do something about, if we had enough advance knowledge. The movie idea of blasting it to bits as it bears down on Earth isn't very realistic, but there are several techniques that could adjust the orbit at (probably) the closest or (less likely) farthest approach to the sun when its orbital energy is highest: a simple nudge there would be many times more effective by the time it crossed our orbit again. I happen to agree this is a worthwhile concern, not because the risk is so high (it isn't) but that the destruction could be potentially all but beyond imagination. And a city being obliterated by a Tunguska-like bolide (air-exploding asteroid) is just the least. An asteroid strike would engulf the entire planet in dust and possibly much of a continent in firestorms; a strike in the oceans could wipe out major cities around the entire basin in less time than any of them could be safely evacuated. Even a lunar strike, as raised above, could be problematic, because then we'd be faced with a period of meteoric activity that would be severely dangerous for decades, if not centuries, to come. (The rocks would be smaller, and carrying much less kinetic energy individually, but that doesn't mean that you want thousands of random rocks falling on the planet every year.)

No, it's not that these are common events -- they're that bad only on a scale of tens of thousands of years at least. But as a species, this is the first time we've ever actually had the potential of doing something about it. I think we'd look extremely dumb to future generations if we didn't.

As for sky surveys, they're happening, which is indeed one reason we're more and more aware of these events. One missing component is a serious government-funded survey of the southern skies (there are only amateur efforts so far). This newest event is exactly the profile that many astronomers worry about most -- one that comes out a part of the sky we aren't, or physically wouldn't be, watching. After all, even if we catalog every possible earth-approaching asteroid we can see, there are always going to be rocks falling out of the Oort cloud or even from interstellar space.

The discovery of how common tiny planetesimals (okay, really big rocks) that orbit beyond the path of Neptune (Trans-Neptunian Objects, aka TNOs or Kuiper Belt Objects; scroll to the bottom to see the first discoveries just 10 years ago, and the acceleration since) has radically changed prior expectations of how common the rocks down in our own neighborhood might be. Previously, the idea was that the solar system was somewhat stable, and that the big gas giants had done a pretty good job vacuuming up the loose crap. Now we're not so sure. Thus the NEAT guys have gotten a lot more attention to their cause, and it isn't just because of popular movies: they've discovered a lot of potential hazards; and we already know many of them will approach closely just in the next century -- and that's only the ones for which we've already created proper orbital elements.

And mass drivers? Geez, why not just plaster the thing with a solar sail? As I say, with enough warning, the energy required for deflection decreases dramatically. We could probably do it with sunlight.
posted by dhartung at 12:52 PM on June 20, 2002

Terrific post, dhartung!

Faze: The Tunguska meteoroid is thought to have fragmented explosively in the air about 5 miles up.
posted by nicwolff at 1:09 PM on June 20, 2002

Just a clarification, dhartung on an otherwise comprehensive post. This discovery was from the LINEAR (MIT/Air Force) project, not the NEAT (JPL/NASA) project though they are both government-run. I believe Spacewatch is the largest privately-funded program. Some links here.
posted by vacapinta at 1:29 PM on June 20, 2002

Such news should give us pause, that no matter which side of the war on terror you are, which side of the fence at the most recent meeting of the WTO, which church you go to, there are things out there that patently make all there is to planet Earth insignificant. Whether you be a CEO, shaman or slave, the fact that the only place in the universe where there are sensient beings who are those things is Earth, speaks volumes as to how stupid it is that we purposefully look for ways to hate and kill one another. Not to mention annihilate the only environment we have in the process.

A quick route to world peace is a cold and uncaring universe doing what it does when it inadvertently wipes us off the cosmic map.

The bit about Ashcroft arresting moon rocks was actually poignant I thought. The Earth naturally getting destroyed kind of thwarts his plans of self-fulfilling prophecy to get the ball finally rolling on this armageddon/second-coming thing.
posted by crasspastor at 1:34 PM on June 20, 2002

As if we don't have enough people scaring us about things happening right here in our own backyard, now they want us to worry about something over which we have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTROL.

You don't know what you're talking about.
posted by Dirjy at 1:36 PM on June 20, 2002

Whenever the discussion turns to exploding large bodies (natural or artificial) above the surface of a planet, I can't help but think how happy I am that all the Ewoks are dead.
posted by yhbc at 1:43 PM on June 20, 2002

Australian Official: Search for Deadly Asteroids 'Fruitless, Unnecessary':

"An Australian government official dismissed a plea by scientists that his country spend money searching for potentially threatening asteroids that could only be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere, calling it a 'fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise.'

"I'm not going to be spooked or panicked into spending scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next asteroid."

Doncha just love it?

"Leading experts agree, however, that it is only a matter of time before one strikes. And they say that less than $1 million annually could fund an adequate program for finding large asteroids using an existing Australian telescope that had previously been used for the task.
Australia pulled funding for the effort in 1996."

*whistles, head in sand*

Asteroids? What asteroids?
posted by mediareport at 3:32 PM on June 20, 2002

Yeah, i am a little disapointed with my government (Australia) not funding these searches, especially since we are one of the few southern hemisphere countries that have the money, technology and manpower to do so.
posted by Zool at 5:12 PM on June 20, 2002

nicwolff: thanks!
vaca: didn't mean to slight anybody, I was just going for the wordplay of "neat guys" ...
posted by dhartung at 5:13 PM on June 20, 2002

Hey Dirjy - did you miss the "movie science" thread?
posted by Irontom at 6:35 PM on June 20, 2002

Yeah, i am a little disappointed with my government (Australia) not funding these searches

Should we start a collection fund? It sure would be stupid to miss one we could actually have seen for lack of a measly million bucks. We'll still need something in outer space to cover the solar blind spot, but we'll work on that separately.

especially since we are one of the few southern hemisphere countries that have the money, technology and manpower to do so.

I'm begging you: call your president, write a letter to the local paper -- anything. At least you'll be able to laugh and say "told you so" as the massive tidal waves speed towards our densely populated coasts.
posted by mediareport at 7:21 PM on June 20, 2002

Oh, I forgot to add: One important reason to know about possible asteroid strikes is so they won't be confused with nuke attacks. This seems to have suddenly added urgency, but I can't imagine why.
posted by dhartung at 11:53 PM on June 20, 2002

Irontom, don't bother me with facts -- I already know what I believe.
posted by Dirjy at 7:20 PM on June 21, 2002

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