Large Asteroid to Pass Near Earth Tuesday

When? Not "If."

A quarter-mile wide asteroid is going to pass within 200,000 miles of the Earth, which is very close in astronomical terms, and closer than the orbit of the moon.  The object, named Asteroid 2005 YU55, is set to scream past the Earth around 6:30 pm EST, on Tuesday evening.  Conspiracy theorists are already proposing that this object is the reason for the EAS test scheduled for the 9th, at 2pm.  The problem with that theory is that this object, were it to hit the Earth, would have wiped out a huge number of people the night before, so the timing is off, so let’s assume that conspiracy theory is busted.  Still, it’s interesting to consider what the impact of such an object would bring to our planet, because in the history of Earth, collisions of that sort have happened countless times.

Movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact portray efforts by the government to stop such an event by various means but in truth, we’re very nearly powerless to stop them at present.  Worse, we’re blind to most of the objects floating around our solar system that could create such devastation, because we spend so little on monitoring the skies.  It’s a reminder of how small is our little place in the universe, and how thoroughly vulnerable we remain to calamities well outside the scope of our powers to mitigate.

Here’s an interesting but decidedly over-sensationalized video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unfti6ZByj0]

Assuming that NASA’s calculations are correct, the .0022 AU distance (Astronomical Units) should provide plenty of margin for safety, although the video above is sensational in its presentation.  Nevertheless, an object of this size would create a global catastrophe far exceeding anything recorded in human history.  It would unleash an explosion that would level everything for hundreds or even  thousands of miles, and would rain ejecta down around the globe from the newly-formed crater.  The skies would darken in short order, making agriculture nearly impossible, and most of the surviving human population of the planet would be subjected to bitter cold and gnawing starvation.

This is one good reason why we ought to be funding those projects that scan the sky for such objects and other natural phenomena, because in truth, it’s a matter of global defense.  We spend so little on this that it’s improbable that we would even notice most of the objects that pose a threat.  Consider this:  These objects are named for the year in which they are discovered.  This one is labeled 2005 YU55, and that means we didn’t even see this thing until 2005.   It’s been in an Earth-crossing orbit for a long time, much longer than we’ve had telescopes to explore the inky blackness of space, so what you must conclude is that there are likely countless others out there, and even if this one doesn’t have our name on it, there is one somewhere out there that does.

Meteor Crater, Arizona

An object this large is estimated to hit the Earth every few million years.  Smaller, but still devastating objects like the one that created Meteor Crater in Arizona strike every hundred-thousand years or so.  While that seems like a long time, in the context of the life of the Earth (somewhere around 4.5 billion years,) it’s not very long at all. For context, the object that created Meteor Crater is though to have been only fifty meters across, but it carved out a notch in the earth over 1200 meters across, and 170 meters deep.  It was thought to be traveling at 28,000 mph. The blast was thought to have been equivalent to a ten megaton nuclear bomb.    An object the size of 2005 YU55, around 400 meters, would have a much more devastating effect. It would likely excavate a crater miles across, and have devastating global consequences.

NASA assures us this object will pose no threat to the Earth, or the moon, but what we should consider carefully is how we spend money on useless boondoggles like Solyndra to enrich a few people, while all of humanity is vulnerable to devastation by natural causes that we may not identify until it is too late to react.  Time is everything with such objects, because the sooner we know of their existence, and the sooner we can plot their orbits, the sooner we can make plans to affect their orbits, tweaking their paths slightly, to avoid a collision with Earth.  Part of the purpose of NASA is to investigate such things, and to devise ways to protect us, but with a budget that has been slashed with the cancellation of major projects, and the lack of focus on this aspect of what NASA is tasked to perform, there’s still a very good chance that some other asteroid will sneak up on us without us having seen it coming.  You can’t prepare for that about which you do not know.

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