Thursday, 16 May 2013

Near Misses With Asteroids a Warning Call, Astronomer Says

Adam D. Young, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas

Asteroid passing near Eart.h (NASA image)
Asteroid passing near Eart.h (NASA image)
A meteor with a sonic boom that shattered millions of windows and injured more than 1,000 people before exploding in the Russian wilderness may have been a rare, once-in-century event.

But an astrological near-miss from an asteroid earlier this month could have done the damage of a large nuclear weapon, had it not been more than 17,000 miles away.

And while the close encounters with space rocks on Feb. 15 didn't prove to be apocalyptic events, having two close calls with potential disasters is reason to take note, a Texas Tech astronomer said.

"It's a bit of a warning call," said Maurice Clark, an assistant professor of astronomy at Tech. "While you're cutting programs that would study these threats and protect us, there are objects out there that come close. At least it points out to us that there are threats."

NASA would see about $900 million in budget cuts for exploration programs as part of automatic spending cuts set to kick in Friday, according to the Associated Press.

About $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts ranging from defense spending, Medicare and discretionary spending are set to take effect as the result of budget negotiations between Congress and President Barack Obama.

If the asteroid is made of rock, astronomers estimate it weighs about 900 million metric tons.

"It's a pretty big rock," Clark said of the meteor that did not reach earth. "It's crater would be about 20 times as wide as it is. That's about half a mile across."

U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said this month's notable space rock encounters show a need to study space.

"But you can't reasonably spend a huge amount of American taxpayer resources for something that likely won't happen," he said.

Clark said he wasn't surprised the near miss by asteroid DA-14 caught the public's attention.

Objects around that size, nearly 40 meters wide, pass between the Earth and moon once a month, he said.

But DA-14's pass was particularly close, coming within about {0th the distance between the Earth and the moon.

"We usually don't see them until they pass us," he said. "We saw this asteroid coming about a year out."

A Spanish observatory discovered the asteroid in February 2012.

"But we knew early on it didn't look like it wasn't going to hit," he said, which likely cut the edge off any fear sometimes seen with potential disasters. "It doesn't surprise me that there wasn't a lot of concern. Maybe they were just worn out of the apocalypse talk by the Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse."

The meteor that impacted Russia, however, was a coincidental oddity that left some wondering if the two space rocks were somehow related, which they weren't, Clark said.

"We had no idea that was coming," Clark said. "It's very difficult to detect something that size in space."