Weatherford Democrat

Online Only

February 26, 2014

Actually, that asteroid did not nearly hit Earth

— The Internet lit up with reports last week that a big rock was on a path to nearly strike the Earth on Monday night, Feb. 17. This was not true. But it made for a grabby headline. As in: "An Asteroid Will Almost Hit the Earth Tonight" (from Motherboard).

The British papers really went to town on this story. The Guardian ran a piece headlined "Asteroid 2000 EM26: 'potentially hazardous' space rock to fly close to Earth." Online, the story has a frightening illustration of a glowing rock plunging toward the Earth.

What did happen is that a rock discovered in 2000 and believed to be roughly 900 feet in diameter, passed by the Earth at a distance of at least 2.1 million miles. That's nearly nine times the distance to the moon. Is that "uncomfortably" close? I'd say: Not really. And it's not really news, because rocks of that size pass that close to the Earth multiple times a year - and have been doing so for billions of years.

Don Yeomans, the head of the Near Earth Object tracking program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Los Angeles Times that a rock that size can be expected to pass that close about once every six months. As you go down in the scale toward smaller rocks, you have a commensurate rise in the frequency of these rocks' "nearly hitting" the Earth.

So why was this one newsy? Because the news business is a quirky beast. The folks at Slooh, a "community" telescope service that streams stuff on the Internet, said they would be live-streaming observations of this "potentially hazardous asteroid," named 2000 EM26. That announcement raced around the Internet - as if we all needed to tune in to see if the Earth would be struck.

But the event was a dud. The Slooh telescope failed to detect 2000 EM26 as it passed the Earth. There was just dark sky. It'll probably turn up in subsequent observations. Because these things move really fast relative to the Earth and are small and dark, they can be hard to spot.

The failure to track the asteroid that was supposedly hurtling toward Earth did little to calm things. The Independent, another British newspaper, blared: "Asteroid 2000 EM26 'as big as three football fields' hurtles past Earth." With that is a stunning photograph of the fireball trail of the asteroid that exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia, last February. The caption says: "Slooh Space Camera tracked the asteroid as it raced past at 27,000 mph."

Reuters ran a story with this headline: "Earth marks close encounter with enormous asteroid."

Well, "close" is a squishy term. Perhaps I'm a little jaded. For people of my generation, 2.1 million miles is still a long way away.

Killer rocks are out there, and we should try to detect them. Arguably we're not investing enough money and technology in that search. But what we can't do is lose our minds every time someone shouts that an asteroid is coming - because there are rocks all over the place and they're part of Earth's environment in space.

JPL keeps a list of known near-Earth objects that could conceivably pose a threat. Some will come close, but none of the big rocks discovered so far are known to be on a trajectory to hit the Earth in the foreseeable future. (There are uncertainties involved, so an impact can't be completely ruled out in some cases.) Scientists are confident that we're not going to suffer a replay in our lifetime of the kind of event that polished off the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The frequency of impacts of smaller rocks, such as the one in Chelyabinsk, is the subject of much discussion. Once every 30 years, maybe?

One of our challenges in the technological, scientific age is to sort through a long list of complicated risk factors. We have to figure out what's worth worrying about and what is exceedingly improbable. Here's my hunch: The thing that's going to get us, one day, isn't going to be something on anyone's radar.



 

1
Text Only
Online Only
  • 20140727-AMX-GUNS271.jpg Beretta, other gun makers heading to friendlier states

    In moving south and taking 160 jobs with it, Beretta joins several other prominent gunmakers abandoning liberal states that passed tough gun laws after the Newtown shooting.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • CATS-DOGS281.jpg Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.-and all over the world

    We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 29, 2014 3 Photos

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.33.11 PM.png VIDEO: High-dive accident caught on tape

    A woman at a water park in Idaho leaped off a 22-foot high dive platform, then tried to pull herself back up with frightening results. Fortunately, she escaped with only a cut to her finger.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Brother sues W.Va. senator over business loan

    U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's brother claims he's owed $1.7 million that he loaned to keep a family carpet out of bankruptcy in the 1980s.

    July 28, 2014

  • How spy agencies keep their 'toys' from law enforcement

    A little over a decade ago, federal prosecutors used keystroke logging software to steal the encryption password of an alleged New Jersey mobster, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., so they could get evidence from his computer to be used at his trial.

    July 28, 2014

  • HallofFameBraves.jpg Hall of Fame adds businesslike Braves, Frank Thomas, managers La Russa and Torre

    Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and their manager, Bobby Cox, dominated much of baseball during the 1990s. This weekend they went into the Hall of Fame together.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • cleaning supplies Don't judge mothers with messy homes

    I was building shelves in my garage when a neighbor girl, one of my 4-year-old daughter's friends, approached me and said, "I just saw in your house. It's pretty dirty. Norah's mommy needs to clean more."

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Russia's war on McDonald's takes aim at the Filet-o-Fish

    Russia said earlier this week that it had no intention of answering Western sanctions by making it harder for Western companies to conduct business in Russia.
    But all bets are off, apparently, when you threaten the Russian waistline.

    July 26, 2014

Must Read
Top News
House Ads
AP Video
US Ready to Slap New Sanctions on Russia Kerry: Not Worried About Israeli Criticism Boater Rescued From Edge of Kentucky Dam Girl Struck by Plane on Florida Beach Dies Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre House to Vote on Slimmed-down Bill for Border Looming Demand Could Undercut Flight Safety Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Raw: Massive Explosions From Airstrikes in Gaza Giant Ketchup Bottle Water Tower Up for Sale Easier Nuclear Construction Promises Fall Short Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating