12 October 2013

Meet the asteroid that might hit Earth in 2880

Radar image of 1950 DA acquired by the Arecibo Observatory on March 4, 2001. (NASA/JPL/S. Ostro)

There are over 10,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) that have been identified so far — asteroids and comets of varying sizes that approach the Earth’s orbital distance to within about 28 million miles. Of the 10,000 discoveries, roughly 10 percent are larger than six-tenths of a mile in size — large enough to have disastrous global consequences should one impact the Earth.

This is one of them.

First discovered in February 1950, 1950 DA is a 1.1-kilometer-wide asteroid that was observed for 17 days and then disappeared from view. Then it was spotted again on Dec. 31, 2000 — literally on the eve of the 21st century. Coupled with radar observations made a few weeks later in March 2001 it was found that, along with a rather high rotation rate (2.1 hours), asteroid 1950 DA has a trajectory that will bring it very close to Earth on March 16, 2880. How close? Close enough that, within a specific 20-minute window, a collision can not be entirely ruled out.

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The image above was made from radar observations by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in March 2001, when 1950 DA passed within 4.8 million miles of Earth. Is this the mug shot of a future continent-killer?

Radar analysis and research of 1950 DA performed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists J.D. Giorgini, S. J. Ostro, Don Yeomans and several others from JPL and other institutions revealed that the impact probability from 1950 DA in March 2880 is, at most, 1 in 300 based on what is known about the asteroid so far.

1 in 300 may sound like a slim chance, but actually this represents a risk 50% greater than that of the average hazard due to all other asteroids from now to then.

However, that’s a maximum value. The study also noted the collision probability for 1950 DA as being in the range from 0 to 0.33%. That upper limit could increase or decrease as more is learned about the asteroid. (The next opportunity for studying 1950 DA via radar is in 2032.)

There are many factors that influence the path of an asteroid through space. Its spin rate, reflectivity (albedo), composition, mass, terrain variations… gravitational interactions with other bodies, some of which may not even have been discovered yet… all of these can affect the movement of an asteroid and, more specifically, its exact position at a future point in time. While many of these things still aren’t precisely known for 1950 DA, one in particular could end up being the saving grace for our descendants: the Yarkovsky effect.

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A small but important force acting upon asteroids, the Yarkovsky effect is a “nudge” created by thermal emission. As an asteroid gathers heat energy from the sun, it releases some of that energy back into space. Thanks to Newtonian mechanics the sheer act of doing so creates a physical push back on the asteroid itself, altering its course ever so slightly. Over a long span of time, this slight alteration could result in the relocation of 1950 DA away from the spot in space where Earth will be on March 16, 2880… at least enough so that a miss is certain.

In fact, recent research by JPL scientists D. Farnocchia and S.R. Chesley have taken into consideration the Yarkovsky effect on 1950 DA based on known values from previous observations, as well as new research suggesting that the asteroid has a retrograde rotation. While their latest assessment does put the risk of an impact in 2880 within the lower end of the probability spectrum (4×10^-4, or -0.58 on the Palermo Scale) it is still far from zero, and in fact remains higher than any other known potential impacts.

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So what would happen if the half-mile-wide 1950 DA were to hit Earth? While that depends on a lot of things, such as its composition, speed, angle of impact, where it impacts, etc., needless to say it would cause a lot of damage across a large area. I’m talking an energy release upwards of half a million megatons, which, were it to strike say, New York City, everything within at least a 100-mile radius would be flattened by the force of the impact alone — that’s halfway to Boston and Washington, DC. And that’s not even taking into consideration the air blast, atmospheric dust cloud, secondary impacts from debris, or damage from any resulting tsunami (if the impact were in the ocean)… the destruction would easily extend out many more hundreds of miles, and the repercussions — physical, financial, economic, and emotional — would extend around the globe.

But again, precisely where 1950 DA will be in another 866 1/2 years (and whether or not it will occupy the same point in space as our planet) relies on many factors that aren’t well known — even though its orbit is pretty well understood. More in-depth observations will need to be made, and that is why asteroids like this must be carefully — and continually — watched.

Luckily, 35 generations offers plenty of time to improve our knowledge. According to JPL’s Near-Earth Object program, “If it is eventually decided 1950 DA needs to be diverted, the hundreds of years of warning could allow a method as simple as dusting the surface of the asteroid with chalk or charcoal, or perhaps white glass beads, or sending a solar sail spacecraft that ends by collapsing its reflective sail around the asteroid. These things would change the asteroids reflectivity and allow sunlight to do the work of pushing the asteroid out of the way.”

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Still, whether because of ongoing research, faith in future generations of scientists, or just sheer probability, JPL remains confident that 1950 DA should cause little concern. “The most likely result will be that St. Patrick’s Day parades in 2880 will be a little more festive than usual as 1950 DA recedes into the distance, having passed Earth by.”

Let’s just hope the luck of the Irish is with our planet big time that year…

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