That Killer Asteroid You Heard About Yesterday? We Knew About It Last Year

By Andrew Moseman | July 29, 2010 10:05 am

AsteroidsBeware death from above! So blared science headlines yesterday. Citing a study in the Journal Icarus that said a huge asteroid perhaps could have a 1 in 1,000 shot of striking earth late in the next century, stories broke such as,

Will a Giant Asteroid Kill Us All in 2182?

Asteroid Could Destroy Human Life on Earth by 2200

Huge asteroid on possible collision course with Earth (172 years from now)

Mark your calendars: Potentially hazardous asteroid might collide with Earth in 2182

They’re correct in that there’s a giant asteroid out there called 1999 RQ36, and there’s a small chance it might hit us in a just less than couple hundred years. There’s just one problem: It isn’t news, though you wouldn’t have gotten that from the articles. The study everyone is referring to came out last year—it was in Icarus last October.

Confused why there was a press release yesterday that blew up into this wave of coverage, I emailed study coauthor Maria Eugenia Sansaturio of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain to see if there was anything new to report about the asteroid. Her reply:

The answer to your question is that there is nothing new. I’m still trying to understand how this has made it to the international media. I was contacted by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology because they wanted to prepare a report on it and inform the Spanish Media, even though the article had been published in 2009…. and here I am overwhelmed with mails and phone calls from all over the world!

So the risk from 1999 RQ36 isn’t exactly new (and the press release in English caught Sansaturio by surprise, to say the least). Apparently, she says, the study just now got on the SFST radar, and that organization’s release set science publications humming about killer asteroids.

But, whether this asteroid’s path is old news or not, we shouldn’t dawdle in thinking about how we might avoid it or asteroids like it. In this case, we’ve only got 172 years—and we already wasted one year getting the news out.

172 years into the future is a long time, and humans aren’t exactly well-known for preparing for future events over those kinds of time scales. But time is one thing we’ll need if we are to protect future generations from a potentially catastrophic impact event [Discovery News].

Of course, the last time there was a giant hubbub over an asteroid that might kill us all (we’re looking at you, Apophis), subsequently improved data all but ruled out a disaster. So don’t panic; grab a telescope.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: What To Do Before the Asteroid Strikes
80beats: Asteroid Photo Session: Rosetta Spacecraft Snaps Pics of Battered Lutetia
80beats: Danger, President Obama! Visiting an Asteroid Is Exciting, But Difficult

Image: ESA, NASA, JAXA, RAS, JHUAPL, UMD, OSIRIS (asteroids visited by spacecraft, created by Emily Lakdawalla)

MORE ABOUT: asteroids, astronomy
  • Timechick

    I’ll say that’s a long time to worry about something. Think about what was going on 172 years ago? Texas was still a republic. The USA was half it’s current size. Railroads were a nifty new idea. Men were just starting to wear pants! You could actually get kicked out of school for such outrageous violations of the dress code.

  • scibuff

    Well, there will be plenty of opportunity between now and 2169 (when the first close approach is predicted) to refine the orbit to much higher precision. In either case, I believe that there are only two possibilities: either humans won’t be around anymore in 2182 or they’ll have no problem of dealing with 0.5km piece of rock heading their way.

  • Georg

    As PHD says:

    The Power of Procrastination!

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    I’m not too worried at this stage but we definitely need to look more closely at its trajectory and keep a good eye on it.

    Plus hope the story doesn’t get too beaten up by the media & end up creating needless panic and craziness. :-(

  • Tom Hill

    We’ll be relatively close to it this time next year. We’ll have some new optical readings and hopefully some radar readings that will likely make this all go away.

    Of course, a threat going away doesn’t lead to big headlines.

  • Jana Kamal

    “I’m still trying to understand how this has made it to the international media” was the comment from this article. The ‘media’ likes to SENSATIONALIZE everything. The real question is why didn’t the ‘media’ report on this information in 2009? Maybe Michael Jackson’s death was too important? SHEESH. Did the media just become aware of this recently because they were too busy making mountains out of molehills of useless information -or- did they go trolling around for information to once again make a ‘breaking news story’ to grab viewers attention so they can keep their advertising sales?

    I have full faith in human ingenuity that if this asteroid ever poses a problem to planet earth in the near future, we’ll have the resources to take care of it. The bigger problem is, when will the ‘media’ actually become a useful source of information to the general public and not just the “attention monster” that it has become?

  • Cory

    What likely actually happened was that someone stumbled across a reference to the asteroid, put a story out on the wire, and then every media station covered it as news without checking from when or where the information originated. Happens quite often, see the recent ruckus over accused “racism” last week here in the U.S.

  • Brian Too

    Oooo, I just invented a planetary defense system! All we have to do is to focus and project all that media attention on the asterioid itself! Thereby deflecting it and (I just thought of it) turning off the weapon! It’s perfect, nothing can go wrong.

  • ChH

    I’m planning to be too dead to be killed in 2182, same as last year when the news came out.

  • nick

    Orbital dynamics are *very* tricky to determine with accuracy, and the smaller the body the more bigger objects like the sun and the planets can affect it with their gravity wells.

    Of course, they could also knock it closer to us. But lets let our grandkid’s grandkids worry about it, unless Ray Kurzweil is right and we’re all still alive, in which case bring a spare pair of pants with ya. :)

  • scott

    Humans will be able to deal with it by then, if they have not stripped all the resources and ruined the planet with pollution, 30 billion people and oceans filled with trash, in which case, the asteroid might be a good thing, to “wipe the slate clean” and start fresh.

  • drivy464

    The asteroid looks to be the target for a mission proposal NASA is considering (OSIRIS) so it could be someone generating buzz to help sell a mission.

  • Crow

    The chances are excellent that if a group of humans actually tries to mitigate the asteroid problem they’ll actually end up causing it to hit Earth instead. Humans just seem to have that knack.

  • Idlewilde

    There is onl;y a 1 in 1000 chance it will hit earth, btw. And while that’s more than Apophis, it’s still pretty small.

  • Cosmo

    But procrastination is our specialty! Human-caused climate change has 99% of climatologists (100% of those unfunded by energy conglomerates) saying it IS happening, and we’re doing precious little about that. Do you honestly think the politicians are worrying about 20 years down the road, let alone 170?!

  • Learn Internet Business

    Im creating a tiny problem I cant subscribe your feed, Im using google reader fyi.

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