Two Asteroids Zip Past Today; Meanwhile, NASA Plans Killer Asteroid Defenses

By Andrew Moseman | September 8, 2010 10:59 am

TwoAsteroidsZoom, zoom: Today two asteroids make close flybys of the Earth, passing inside the orbit of the moon. We’re in no danger, NASA says, but these close passes are a reminder that the United States and the world need to figure out how we’re going to catch an asteroid that could be on a collision course with our planet.

The larger asteroid, called 2010 RX30, passed by this morning. The smaller, 2010 RF12, is due for a pass at 5:12 p.m. Eastern time today. RF12, which is estimated to be between 20 and 46 feet in diameter, will come within about 50,000 miles of the Earth.

This is higher than communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit 22,369 miles (36,000 km) above Earth. On average, the moon is about roughly 238,600 miles (384,000 km) from Earth, so 2010 RF12 will pass by at nearly 0.2 of that lunar distance. [MSNBC]

The nearness of the afternoon asteroid should make it visible with a telescope. However, on its pass by the Earth it will be closest to Antarctica, CNN reports, hindering the ability of North Americans to see it.

NASA’s sky-watchers spotted these two objects on Sunday. According to Donald Yeomans, the head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, three days is actually pretty good warning considering how small they are, and our lookout capabilities.

“Things like this happen every day that we simply don’t know about because we don’t have the telescopes large enough to find them or surveys that are looking full-time,” he said. “This demonstrates the system’s working on some level, but we need larger telescopes and more of them to find objects that are coming this close.” [CNN]

Indeed, NASA’s ability to spot near-Earth objects (NEOs) lags behind the Congressional target: finding 90 percent of the NEOs that are 140 meters (about 460 feet) in diameter by 2020. Nature reports that NASA’s committee on what to do about this, the Ad-Hoc Task Force on Planetary Defense, is preparing to release its report in October.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has until 15 October to decide which agency will be responsible for protecting the planet from an asteroid strike. Members of the task force say NASA expects to be given part or all of that responsibility. To meet it, the panel discussed the creation of a Planetary Protection Coordination Office (PPCO) within NASA, with an annual budget of $250 million–$300 million. It would detect and track asteroids — and develop a capability to deflect them. [Nature]

The advisory panel also might recommend whether it would be better to develop a space-based telescope to watch for NEOs, or to invest in large ground-based telescopes that might cost less and last longer.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Asteroid Hunters, backyard astronomers who watch for armageddon
80beats: Danger, President Obama! Visiting an Asteroid Is Exciting, but Difficult
80beats: That Killer Asteroid You Heard About Yesterday? We Knew About It Last Year
80beats: Astronomers Announce Priorities: Dark Energy, Exoplanets, Cosmic Origins

Image: NASA

MORE ABOUT: asteroids, NASA, NEOs, telescopes
  • Dennis

    I think you’ve got some wires crossed (typos) in which asteroid is which.

  • Andrew Moseman

    Yes, there was one typo. Thanks for the catch; fixed.

  • m

    too bad we couldn’t catch any of them. Force them to crash into the moon..then send someone to study them.

    1) practice for diverting/destroying asteroids that are more dangerous
    2) develop technology to do step 1.
    3) opportunity to study the formation of solar system.

  • violet

    Since we Americans need to be ‘protected’ against such information, just wondering if the rest of the world knew the asteroids were coming on Sunday when they were first discovered. Thank God I was kept in the blissful state of ignorance that we Americans must stay in because we are such little babies we would panic – according to the power people.

  • J

    violet, a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

  • Rainman

    M’s got a great idea but I have a better one: a breathalyzer for internet comments. This way when violet blew a 0.2 after her happy-hour pomegranate margaritas, she’d be barred from clicking the Submit Comment button until she’d sobered up and had a chance to rethink her comment.

  • Katharine

    J, do remember that that people is made up of individual persons. And not all persons react the same to BIG SCARY THINGS.

    The average person is actually not that smart. People who read Discover Magazine are more likely to be smart. But not the average person. Are you acquainted with any average people? They are not that smart.


    How big were these asteroids, what was the steepest angle at which they could have hit the Earth from their trajectories, and how fast were they going?

  • arthur scott

    while it was close one must think about the fact the huge object that slammed into jupiter was found only 18 months before impact, 18 months is not enough time to do anything for earth,.

  • B

    An estimate cites the mass of asteroidal objects between Mercury and Jupiter as being approximately 4 Earth masses. The true figure is probably twice as much. Genesis of the terrestrial planets is an on going process which may or may not be convenient for human life on Earth. It is now known that an asteroid about the size of a football field will effectively burn up and disintegrate in the upper atmosphere – very little will remain to touch the ground in one piece. Asteroids about 1 kilometer in diameter will most likely cause headaches for heads of state and insurance companies – mining companies on the otherhand will rejoice over the tons of extraterrestrial metal ore delivered to their doorstep.


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