Tag: asteroid

Veronicarmageddon

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 2:01 pm

My pal Veronica Belmont hosts a show on TechFeed called Fact or Fictional, where she investigates the science of a movie based on viewer suggestions. She recently took on the wonderful fantastic gawd-awful piece of festering offal "Armageddon", talking to scientist Joe Hanson, who writes the terrific It’s OK to Be Smart blog.

Let’s just say they agree with me about the movie:

Yay! That was fun. This pretty much follows my own recent thoughts on the movie, as well as my original review of it when it came out in 1998.

If you want to learn how we’d really prevent an asteroid impact, and why we need to take this seriously, I gave a TEDxBoulder talk about it. It’s a real threat, but one we can prevent if we choose to do so.


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Jupiter gets rocked by an impact again

By Phil Plait | September 17, 2012 10:00 am

By now you’ve probably heard that on September 10, Jupiter got whacked by an asteroid or comet again. It was seen directly by amateur astronomer Dan Peterson, and video was taken by George Hall, who kindly posted a fairly awesome a four-second clip on Flickr:

[You may need to refresh this page to see it.]

You can read more about it at Scientific American.

I tweeted about this shortly after it happened (I was returning from the UK and didn’t have time to write about it here), and got a lot of people wondering how big the flash was. On the video it looks like it’s thousands of kilometers across! But that’s not real; the size you see is due mostly to the optics of the telescope and video camera Hall used (plus other factors like atmospheric blurring). Given the brightness I guessed the object was a kilometer or so across, but I heard a radio interview the other day (I missed the guest’s name; sorry) where an astronomer said it may have been only 10 meters across – the size of a large truck.

I was surprised at first when he said that, but then realized something critical: Jupiter is a lot bigger than Earth.

The energy released by an asteroid upon impact depends primarily on two things: how big it is and how fast it’s moving. For a given asteroid, that means it’ll explode with far more energy if it hits Jupiter, because Jupiter’s gravity is much stronger than Earth’s, and pulls the rock in faster. Simply because of this, impacts on Jupiter can be greater than 20 times more energetic than on Earth. There are other factors (like orbital speeds, what direction the asteroid was moving, and so on), but in general and pound for pound Jupiter impacts are bigger than on Earth.

A 10-meter rock hitting the Earth will release roughly as much energy as a 0.1 megaton bomb, whereas on Jupiter that same rock will release about 2 megatons. A rock twice that size will have 8 times the mass (volume increases with the cube of the radius) so even if it were 20 meters across, the explosion could’ve been in the 15 – 20 megaton range, which is starting to get to the size of the largest nuclear weapons ever detonated on Earth.

So yeah, that’s a lot of power. It doesn’t take a big rock to make a bright flash when you’ve got Jupiter pulling the strings.

And the big planet gets hit a lot. The last one seen was on August 20, 2010, and it got whacked in June 2010 as well as in July 2009 (not to mention the ferocious series of impacts in 1994 from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9). That’s pretty close to one biggish impact seen per year, and remember we only see half of Jupiter at a time, and it’s not observed constantly! So the real rate is probably far higher.

I also got a lot of people asking why we call it an impact when Jupiter has no solid surface. That’s because the rock will still explode as it rams through Jupiter’s dense atmosphere; I wrote an explanation of this for an earlier impact. The 1908 Tunguska event here on Earth was an air blast, as well.

It’s amazing we can see these planetary at all, but that’s due to the digital revolution: amateur astronomers take video of Jupiter and other objects to maximize the number of frames they get, which they then can combine into amazing images. A nice side-effect from this is the collection of rapidly-taken data providing long coverage of the planets, which means significantly increasing the odds of seeing something like this. That is precisely why we’re seeing more impacts now than ever before. They’ve always been happening, we’re just a whole lot better at seeing them.

Which is a sobering thought. The Universe is worth investigating, if only for our own self-interest.


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Near-Earth asteroid twice as big as previously thought

By Phil Plait | June 22, 2012 11:00 am

On June 14, 2012, the asteroid 2012 LZ1 passed the Earth. It missed us by a wide margin, over 5 million kilometers (3 million miles), so there was no danger of impact. While it does get near us every now and again, using current orbital measurements we know we’re safe from an impact by this particular rock for at least 750 years. Phew.

Good thing, too. New observations using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico indicate LZ1 is bigger than we first thought. Much bigger: it’s about a kilometer across, when it was thought to be half that size before these observations.

That’s a big difference. The problem is that the size of an asteroid is hard to determine. Even a big one may only appear as a dot in a telescope, so even though we may know its distance and trajectory very accurately, directly measuring its size isn’t possible. Usually, the size is estimated by knowing its distance and how bright it appears. In general, a bigger rock will look brighter than a smaller one at a given distance.

But that assumes they both reflect the same amount of light. Most asteroids reflect about 4% of the sunlight they receive (this property is called the albedo), but that depends on their surface. Some have darker surfaces, some brighter. If you don’t know how reflective it is, the size can only be estimated.

But the Arecibo telescope can actually directly measure the size of a nearby asteroid. It can send pulses of radio waves at an asteroid and then receive the reflected waves, much like a cop on the side of the road uses radar to measure a car’s speed. The method is technical (Emily Lakdawalla has a great explanation on her blog), but it was used for LZ1 to get the new size measurement. The picture above is the actual image generated using Arecibo when the rock was still 10 million km (6 million miles) from Earth. Apparently, LZ1 is much less reflective than assumed earlier, which is why the size was underestimated by a factor of two.

An asteroid this size hitting the Earth would be, um, bad. That’s big enough to be considered a global hazard, causing immense devastation. It might not be an extinction event — the dinosaur-killing asteroid was 10 km across, so it had 1000 times the mass of LZ1 — but it wouldn’t be fun. So I’m glad we’re safe from this guy for some time!

But I’ll be honest: LZ1 was only discovered a few weeks before it passed us. Asteroids this size passing near us are pretty rare (we haven’t had an impact from something this big for many, many millennia) so as usual I’m not panicking about this. But it just shows once again that we need more eyes on the sky, more people looking. And we need a plan in place in case we do see one with our name on it.


Related Posts:

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My asteroid impact talk is now on TED
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Another tiny rock will pass Earth tomorrow

By Phil Plait | May 28, 2012 12:15 pm

[tl;dr: A small 5-10 meter asteroid will pass us tomorrow; it poses no danger to us.]

[UPDATE (May 29, 16:30 UTC): The JPL website for this asteroid has been updated – the rock passed us at the predicted distance of about 14,500 km from the Earth’s surface. The new numbers use 50 observations of the asteroid (the earlier orbit calculations used far fewer), so this looks pretty solid to me. As we knew all along, it was a close pass, but nothing to worry about.]

I recently wrote about near-Earth asteroid 2012 KP24, a house-sized (25 meter) rock. As I write this it passed us safely just a few hours ago, as predicted.

But thanks to scibuff and AsteroidWatch on Twitter, I just learned of another tiny visitor that will buzz past us tonight/tomorrow, May 29, at around 07:00 UTC (03:00 Eastern US time). Called 2012 KT42, this one is even smaller than KP24: it’s probably less than 10 meters across — about the size of a school bus or more likely a minivan. And it’ll be a close shave: though the orbit is still not nailed down, the nominal miss distance is about 14,500 kilometers (8900 miles). That’s a bit bigger than the diameter of the Earth itself.


[UPDATE (19:15 UTC): There’s more info on KT42 in on the Italian Remanzacco Observatory blog (h/t TredySas). There’s also a cool animation made from five exposures of it:

I’ll add more here if I hear anything.]


[UPDATE (19:55 UTC): No new info as such, but Alex Gibbs from the Catalina Sky Survey sent me this nice 4-tile mosaic of the discovery images of KT42, taken with the Mt. Lemmon 60" telescope:

Very cool!]


Bear in mind, it was only discovered last night, so the current orbit is preliminary. Many small rocks that pass close to Earth are discovered shortly before they breeze past us (and some not until after), so this is nothing out-of-the ordinary.

And since some people tend to get upset about these things, I’ll point out that as of right now, it looks like it will miss us. And even if newer observations show it hitting us, this rock is way too small to do any damage. At that size, it’ll break up in the atmosphere and make a spectacular light show, but not much else. This has happened countless times with asteroids this size, like the Peekskill meteor in 1992, or the more recent fireball over California last April. These can produce meteorites which fall to Earth, but the odds of getting by one are so small they’re basically zero.

Put it this way: the Earth has a surface area of more than 500 trillion square meters. Your surface area is less than 1 square meter (as seen from above). Those are pretty good odds you’ll be OK.

Another way to think about this is that rocks this size pass us all the time, but you never hear about them hurting us; that’s because they don’t! The smaller the asteroid the more common they are, but the less they can do to us. At this size, there’s no danger.

And as usual, I’ll point out that this discovery is a good thing! It shows we can find them, and that’s important. If we ever do discover an asteroid on a collision course that’s big enough to hurt us, the first step is to find it. And we’re getting better at that all the time.


Related Posts:

Small asteroid to buss Earth on May 28
A brief bit about asteroid 2012 DA14
No, asteroid 2012 DA14 will not hit us next year
Asteroid 2011 AG5: a football-stadium-sized rock to watch carefully
Updated movie of asteroid YU55, plus bonus SCIENCE
Asteroid 2007 TU24: No Danger to Earth

Asteroid, mine

By Phil Plait | May 9, 2012 10:45 am

I write a sporadically monthly column for Blastr, the science/science fiction web news portal for the SyFy channel. My latest is about asteroid mining — the company Planetary Resources announced recently they have big plans to Go Where No Mine Has Gone before, and I give it the once over.

As I said when I wrote about this earlier, I’m enthusiastic about it, but I’d like to see details. But I’ll say that the first few steps the company wants to take make a great deal of sense to me.

And hey, if you speak French — je ne pas parles merci bleh bleh PeeWee — the French newspaper 20 Minutes has an interview with me about all this as well. I think I come off sounding really smart, because I can’t understand a word of the interview.

More of my Blastr articles are listed below, too. I seem to have a predilection for destruction. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write about unicorns and rainbows next.

Oh, wait.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, Piece of mind, Space

MSNBC interview: 2012, the year the Earth doesn't end. Again.

By Phil Plait | March 14, 2012 7:00 am

I was at the SXSW tech conference over the weekend to be on a panel about 2012 doomsday nonsense. Right after, Helen Popkin of MSNBC interviewed me about this stuff:

[If the video above doesn’t load, hit refresh; I’ve found that happens sometimes and refreshing usually fixes it.]

The panel was fun — I gave an overview to and quickly debunked a bunch of 2012 claims, while JPL scientists Don Yeomans and Veronica McGregor talked about asteroid impacts, and what NASA is doing to calm unfounded fears about them. Asteroids are indeed a threat, but that danger is routinely exaggerated way beyond reality by lots of folks (YouTube fearmongers, I’m looking at you). There’s no real danger of the Earth ending in 2012, Mayan calendar-wise or otherwise — but the real danger is the overhyped fear of nonsense.

Forewarned is forearmed. Be aware of the reality of the situation, and save yourself a lot of trouble.

Cool animation showing asteroid DA 14's near miss next year

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2012 12:41 pm

Asteroid 2012 DA 14 was discovered a few weeks ago: a 40-meter wide rock on an orbit that brings it pretty close to Earth. Next year, on February 16, it will pass about 27,000 km from the center of the Earth (roughly 21,000 km from the surface), which is pretty close, but still a clear miss.

I wrote about this asteroid earlier this week, and the comments have been pouring in. People are asking if it will hit (no), if the Earth’s gravity will change the orbit of DA 14 (yes), have astronomers accounted for that (yes), and will it ever hit us sometime in the future (we don’t know; see below). One commenter, Chris Laurel, created a wonderful photo-realistic animation of the pass of the asteroid using software called Cosmographia, and, well, I think it will answer most people’s questions and fears:

Isn’t that cool? I did some spot checking using the JPL numbers and diagrams, and this looks pretty accurate to me. You can see how it approaches and misses us, and then he backs out a bit to show that the asteroid’s path is warped significantly by Earth’s gravity. So, to be very clear: next year, in February, this rock will miss us.

However, the amount the orbit is changed by Earth depends on precisely how close it comes, and we can’t measure the orbit that accurately just yet, even though we know it well enough to know it will miss. So what we really need are as many telescopes watching this event next year as possible for as long as possible. That will greatly reduce the uncertainty in the asteroid’s position over time, and allow for a good measurement of the orbit. It’s overwhelmingly most likely that the Earth’s gravity will put the asteroid into an orbit where it will miss us again for some time to come, but the only way to be sure is to really nail down its orbit.

I’m sure there will be an organized campaign with observers all over the world to do this. I’ll post more about that when I hear more, probably in the next few months.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, contest, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: 2012 DA14, asteroid, impact

Asteroid 2011 AG5: a football-stadium-sized rock to watch carefully

By Phil Plait | March 6, 2012 7:00 am

Over the weekend, I posted about asteroid 2012 DA14, which is not the threat some people are claiming it is (at least not right away). And now I have to tell you about an asteroid that might be a threat in the year 2040. Most likely it won’t be, but it’s something we need to look at carefully.

There’s some background I have to give you so this all makes sense, but let me sum up here: the odds of an impact from asteroid 2011 AG5 are low, but not easily dismissed. If it passes us at just the right distance in 2023, it’ll swing back again and impact the Earth in 2040. We don’t know the orbit of it well enough to say either way just yet, and it may be late 2013 before we can be sure. An asteroid expert at NASA says waiting until next year for more observations is not a problem, but another asteroid expert is saying that waiting that long is a bad idea: we should start analyzing a possible deflection campaign for this rock now. I’m personally leaning toward the idea that getting moving on the initial analysis now is not such a bad idea. If you prefer, I have a list of bullet points at the conclusion of this post with summarized information.

[In the interest of full disclosure: Below, I will be talking about Rusty Schweickart and Don Yeomans. I’ve known Rusty for several years, and Don and I will be on a panel together talking about asteroid impacts at SXSW next week. I honestly like both Rusty and Don. They’re good men, very intelligent and honest, and I have a lot of respect for both of them.

Also, because of the length and nature of this post, I strongly urge everyone to read the whole thing, carefully, before commenting. Thank you.]


The rock

The asteroid, called 2011 AG5, was discovered in early 2011 by a telescopic survey of the sky designed to look for asteroids that can get near the Earth. Although its exact size is unknown, it’s roughly 140 meters across — the size of a football stadium. As you can see from this diagram, it orbits the Sun on an elliptical path that brings it out past the orbit of Mars and inside the orbit of Earth. It circles the Sun once every 1.7 years.

As it happens, the orbit of AG5 brings it close to Earth every few orbits. In 2023, it will pass us at a distance of about 1.6 million km (1 million miles). That’s a safe distance, with no chance of it hitting us at all. However, you have to appreciate the gravity of this upcoming situation.


The keyhole

When AG5 passes us in February 2023, the Earth’s gravity will bend its orbit a little bit, changing the path the rock takes. If it passes close to the Earth the orbit changes a lot; if it’s too far the orbit changes only a little. But if AG5 passes us at just the right distance, the orbit will change just the right amount to put it on a collision course with Earth. This region of space is called a “keyhole”, and in this case, should AG5 slip through it, it will hit us 17 years later, in 2040. That collision, though not global in scope, would be catastrophic: equal to about a 100 megaton explosion, twice that of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

The problem is, we don’t know the orbit of AG5 well enough to know if it will travel through the keyhole or not. As I pointed out in the article about the asteroid 2012 DA14, it can be tricky to try to predict asteroid orbits too far into the future. The orbit of an asteroid is determined by making measurements of its position over time, and because of various effects (like blurring due to our atmosphere) it is impossible to get exactly precise positions. They can be good enough to get an accurate orbit for the next few years, but the farther into the future you look, the fuzzier that path gets.

In the case of AG5 we know its orbit well enough to know for sure it’ll miss us by a million miles in 2023, but we don’t have the accuracy yet to know if it will thread the eye of this keyhole, which is very roughly 360 km (240 miles) across. It’s like standing by the side of a road and knowing a car driving down it will safely miss you by 10 meters, but you can’t be sure if that exact distance will be 10.004 meters or 9.996 meters. And that’s the sort of accuracy we need for AG5.


The odds

At the moment, given the observations we have, the odds of AG5 passing through the keyhole in 2023 are about 1 in 625. For an asteroid impact, that’s actually pretty high as these things go, but still pretty low in realistic terms. Let me be clear: any professional poker player will tell you never to bet on an inside straight, and the odds of getting the card you need in that case are only 1 in 13 or so. The odds of AG5 hitting us are much lower than that!

Moreover, since the orbit of the asteroid is uncertain, as we get better observations the predicted path is likely to change, to move. In that case — which is almost certainly the way things will play out — the predicted orbit will move away from the keyhole and we’ll be safe from a 2040 impact. This sort of thing has happened several times before with asteroids as their positions are observed over time, and the orbital paths clarified.

Still, a 1 in 625 chance is high enough that we need to be sure. So how do we do that?

Read More

No, asteroid 2012 DA14 will not hit us next year

By Phil Plait | March 4, 2012 11:30 am

For the tl;dr crowd, let’s get this out of the way right away: asteroid 2012 DA14 is almost certainly not going to hit the Earth next February. And by "almost certainly", I mean it: the odds of an impact are so low they are essentially zero. This does not rule out an impact at some future date, but for now we’re safe.


So what’s the story?

A small near-Earth asteroid was discovered in late February by astronomers at the Observatorio Astronómico de La Sagra in Spain, less than two weeks ago. Designated 2012 DA14, it’s estimated to be about 45 meters (150 feet) in diameter, and has an orbit that is similar to Earth’s.



Its orbit is an inclined ellipse, tilted a bit compared to Earth’s orbit around the Sun (the positions of Earth and DA14 are shown for August of 2012 — I picked that randomly to make the orbits clear), and it spends most of its time well away from our planet. However, the path of the rock does bring it somewhat close to the Earth twice per orbit, or about every six months. The last time it passed us was on February 16 – two weeks ago — when it was about 2.5 million km (1.5 million miles) away, equal to about 6 times the distance to the Moon. That’s usually about the scale of these encounters — it misses us by quite a margin.


February 2013: a close shave

Next year, on February 15, 2013, DA14 will actually get pretty close to Earth. It will pass us at a distance of about 27,000 km (17,000 miles) — well beneath many of our own orbiting satellites! To the best of my knowledge, this is the closest pass of a decent-sized asteroid ever seen before the actual pass itself.

However, let’s again be very clear: it will miss. In astronomical terms, 27,000 km is pretty close, but in real human terms it’s a clean miss.

[UPDATE: The rt.com article I linked below has changed substantively since I posted my own article here. They have attributed their quotations more clearly, and have taken out most of the more breathless rhetoric. I applaud them for doing so, though I wish they had been more clear in the first place.]

Unsurprisingly, though very irritatingly, I’ve seen a lot of websites writing about this as if the asteroid will hit. For example, rt.com has a very confused article about DA14 claiming it will somehow both miss us and hit us:

The rock’s closest approach to the planet is scheduled for February 15, 2013, when the distance between the planet and space wanderer will be under 27,000 km (16,700 miles). […] With the asteroid zooming that low, it will be too late to do anything with it besides trying to predict its final destination and the consequences of impact.

Blechh. They write that in a way to make an impact seem likely, but that’s not the case at all! I’ve seen several other websites making similarly contradictory or confused claims (Note:I originally included this SFBay article as an example. It’s not confused, but by using the phrase "potentially fateful day" it struck me as exaggerating the fear). The rt.com article even comes right out and says "NASA confirms… [DA14] has a good chance of colliding with Earth". This is simply not true. I’ll note they don’t actually give a reference to that, so it’s not clear who, if anyone, actually said that, or where they got that information. Either way, it’s wrong.


The fuzzy future

So we’re safe for now. But what about future passes?

That’s harder to say. Predicting where an asteroid will be at some future time depends on a lot of things, including how good the observations are now and how long we’ve been watching it. When we observe an asteroid with a telescope, we can measure its position, but not with perfect accuracy. The Earth’s atmosphere blurs the image a bit, and other factors make it impossible to get an exact measurement. So we observe it many times, over as long a period as possible, to hammer down those uncertainties.

There will always be some small amount of fuzziness to the orbit of an asteroid, though, and the farther ahead in the future you look the bigger that fuzziness gets. For next year, we know the orbit of DA14 well enough to know it’ll miss, but for future orbits it’s harder to say.

As things stand, right now the JPL website lists the next close pass as February 2020, but we don’t know the orbit well enough at this moment to know how close that pass will be*. As things stand, the odds of an impact even then are very, very low (like, 1 in 100,000 — less than your odds of getting hit by lightning in your lifetime). We can’t technically rule it out just yet because, again, the orbit isn’t known well enough to look that far into the future. Of course, astronomers are observing the asteroid right now, and will continue to do so. No doubt we’ll have better orbital information pretty soon.


Keep watching the skies!

So again, because I can’t say this strongly enough: asteroid 2012 DA14 is not an impact threat for February 2013. However, we definitely need to keep our eyes on this guy to see if it poses a threat at some future date. If it does, then you can be sure you’ll be hearing about it from me, and from other websites too. But make sure you find reliable websites. Too many are too ready to breathlessly report this as doomsday when it’s anything but.

So, at least for February 2013, we can safely say:


* I’ll note the European NEO-DyS group uses different mathematical techniques, and they don’t even list that date as a near pass. Instead, they say it’ll be six months later, in September. Again, this shows that given our current observations of DA14, predicting its position that far in the future is very uncertain.


Related Posts:

My asteroid impact talk is now on TED!
Just to be clear: asteroid YU55 is no danger to Earth
Media FAIL *again* (HuffPo and Apophis edition)
Debunking doomsday

3D video Vesta

By Phil Plait | December 2, 2011 7:02 am

If you’ve ever wanted see what it would look like to orbit the asteroid Vesta in 3D, now’s your chance. You have to have red/green glasses, but I bet after seeing all the anaglyph posts I’ve made, a lot of you do. Anyway, this animation was made by NASA/JPL using data from the space probe Dawn when it was orbiting Vesta at a height of about 2700 km (1700 miles):

Very cool. I was struck the most by how the gigantic mound in the center of the south pole basin has actual and substantially-sized craters in it from impacts! Airless bodies have craters all over them — unless they resurface themselves, like Io’s volcanoes do or they have undersurface oceans like Enceladus and Europa — so it’s natural to see craters on a mountain. But usually mountains are relatively small, so big craters would wipe them out. But that mound on Vesta is huge — it rises 23 km (14 miles) above the basin floor! So there’s easily room on it for big craters.

Vesta’s a weird place, and I’m glad we’re studying it so closely. Even more closely than before in fact, since a couple of months ago Dawn dropped to only 750 km from the surface. The images it’s returning now are really amazing… as you can see for yourself!

Image and video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA


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Vesta’s odd bottom
Invaders from Vesta!
Vesta’s double whammy
Vesta in breathtaking detail

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: anaglyph, asteroid, Dawn, Vesta
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