An asteroid hurtled through Earth’s backyard on Friday, coming within an incredible 27,599km and making the closest known flyby for a rock of its size. In a chilling coincidence, a meteor exploded above Russia’s Ural Mountains just hours before the asteroid zoomed past the planet.
Scientists the world over, along with NASA, said the meteor had nothing to do with the asteroid since they appeared to be traveling in opposite directions. The asteroid is a much more immense object and delighted astronomers in Australia and elsewhere who watched it zip harmlessly through a clear night sky.
“It’s on its way out,” Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, as it is called, came closer to Earth than many communications and weather satellites orbiting 35,887km up. Scientists said these, too, would be spared, and they were right.
The asteroid was too small to see with the naked eye even at its closest approach at about 2:25pm over the Indian Ocean near Sumatra.
The best viewing locations, with binoculars and telescopes, were in Asia, Australia and eastern Europe. Even there, all anyone could see was a pinpoint of light as the asteroid buzzed by at 28,000kph.
As asteroids go, this one is a shrimp. The one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was 9.7km across. However, this rock could still do immense damage if it ever struck, given its 129,700 tonne heft, releasing the energy equivalent of 2.2 million tonnes of TNT and wiping out 1,942km2.
By comparison, NASA estimated that the meteor that exploded over Russia was much smaller — about 15m wide and 6,350 tonnes before it hit the atmosphere, or one-third the size of the passing asteroid.
As for the back-to-back events, “this is indeed very rare and it is historic,” NASA director of planetary science Jim Green said.
“We are in a shooting gallery and this is graphic evidence of it,” said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, chairman emeritus of the B612 Foundation, committed to protecting Earth from dangerous asteroids.
Schweickart noted that 500,000 to 1 million sizable near-Earth objects — asteroids or comets — are out there. Yet less than 1 percent — fewer than 10,000 — have been inventoried.
Humanity has to do better, he said. The foundation is working to build and launch an infrared space telescope to find and track threatening asteroids.
If a killer asteroid was, indeed, incoming, a spacecraft could in theory be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection, Schweickart said. A second spacecraft would make a slight alteration in the path of the asteroid and ensure it never intersects with the planet again.
Asteroid DA14 — discovered by Spanish astronomers only last February — is “such a close call” that it is a “celestial torpedo across the bow of spaceship Earth,” Schweickart said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Divers scoured the bottom of a Russian lake yesterday for fragments of the meteorite that plunged to Earth in a blinding fireball whose shockwaves injured 1,200 people and damaged thousands of homes.
The meteor streaked across the sky in the Urals region on Friday morning just as the world braced for a close encounter with a large asteroid that left some Russian officials calling for the creation of a global system of space object defense.
The unpredicted meteor strike brought traffic to a halt in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk as residents poured out on the streets to watch the light show before hovering for safety as a sonic boom shattered glass and set off car alarms. The shattered glass injured most of the people.
“We have a special team working ... that is now assessing the seismic stability of buildings,” Russian Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov told residents as he inspected the damage in the central Russian city.
“We will be especially careful about switching the gas back on,” he said in televised remarks.
A fragment of the meteor — called a meteorite once it hits the ground — was believed to have plunged into the Chelyabinsk region’s frozen Lake Chebarkul.