The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

February 27, 2014

Actually, that asteroid did not nearly hit Earth

— The Internet lit up with reports last week that a big rock was on a path to nearly strike the Earth on Monday night, Feb. 17. This was not true. But it made for a grabby headline. As in: "An Asteroid Will Almost Hit the Earth Tonight" (from Motherboard).

The British papers really went to town on this story. The Guardian ran a piece headlined "Asteroid 2000 EM26: 'potentially hazardous' space rock to fly close to Earth." Online, the story has a frightening illustration of a glowing rock plunging toward the Earth.

What did happen is that a rock discovered in 2000 and believed to be roughly 900 feet in diameter, passed by the Earth at a distance of at least 2.1 million miles. That's nearly nine times the distance to the moon. Is that "uncomfortably" close? I'd say: Not really. And it's not really news, because rocks of that size pass that close to the Earth multiple times a year - and have been doing so for billions of years.

Don Yeomans, the head of the Near Earth Object tracking program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Los Angeles Times that a rock that size can be expected to pass that close about once every six months. As you go down in the scale toward smaller rocks, you have a commensurate rise in the frequency of these rocks' "nearly hitting" the Earth.

So why was this one newsy? Because the news business is a quirky beast. The folks at Slooh, a "community" telescope service that streams stuff on the Internet, said they would be live-streaming observations of this "potentially hazardous asteroid," named 2000 EM26. That announcement raced around the Internet - as if we all needed to tune in to see if the Earth would be struck.

But the event was a dud. The Slooh telescope failed to detect 2000 EM26 as it passed the Earth. There was just dark sky. It'll probably turn up in subsequent observations. Because these things move really fast relative to the Earth and are small and dark, they can be hard to spot.

The failure to track the asteroid that was supposedly hurtling toward Earth did little to calm things. The Independent, another British newspaper, blared: "Asteroid 2000 EM26 'as big as three football fields' hurtles past Earth." With that is a stunning photograph of the fireball trail of the asteroid that exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia, last February. The caption says: "Slooh Space Camera tracked the asteroid as it raced past at 27,000 mph."

Reuters ran a story with this headline: "Earth marks close encounter with enormous asteroid."

Well, "close" is a squishy term. Perhaps I'm a little jaded. For people of my generation, 2.1 million miles is still a long way away.

Killer rocks are out there, and we should try to detect them. Arguably we're not investing enough money and technology in that search. But what we can't do is lose our minds every time someone shouts that an asteroid is coming - because there are rocks all over the place and they're part of Earth's environment in space.

JPL keeps a list of known near-Earth objects that could conceivably pose a threat. Some will come close, but none of the big rocks discovered so far are known to be on a trajectory to hit the Earth in the foreseeable future. (There are uncertainties involved, so an impact can't be completely ruled out in some cases.) Scientists are confident that we're not going to suffer a replay in our lifetime of the kind of event that polished off the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The frequency of impacts of smaller rocks, such as the one in Chelyabinsk, is the subject of much discussion. Once every 30 years, maybe?

One of our challenges in the technological, scientific age is to sort through a long list of complicated risk factors. We have to figure out what's worth worrying about and what is exceedingly improbable. Here's my hunch: The thing that's going to get us, one day, isn't going to be something on anyone's radar.



 

1
Text Only
Opinion & Letters to the Editor
  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 19, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    WASHINGTON - The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 19, 2014

  • taylor.armerding.jpg Obama's equal pay exaggeration leads us all into danger

    The president's claims of national shame over gender-based pay inequity spring from distorted calculations, as well as some convenient political math.

    April 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • Teens trading naked selfies for mugshots

    Will teenagers ever learn? You think yours will. Maybe so. But it's likely that was also the hope of the parents of children who were so shamed by nude photos of themselves that went south - how else can they go - that they killed themselves.

    April 12, 2014

  • Brent Laurenz If you want to vote in primary, you need to register to vote now

    RALEIGH – North Carolina voters will head to the polls on May 6 this year to cast ballots in important primary elections across the state.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Scott Mooneyham Heeding the voter fraud call in N.C.

    RALEIGH – Legislators found the findings outrageous.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Doug Creamer Roots

    I took a few minutes over the weekend to enjoy our yard and the arrival of spring. There seems to be so much work that needs to be done, it is hard to decide what to do first. I am excited that I got to run my tiller through the garden. I didn’t go very deep, but I did at least break up the soil. I have a couple of raised beds and the soil in them was in very good shape. I didn’t plant my peas and now after the big rain we got on Monday I realize that I missed a window of opportunity.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • 10 tips for surviving a severe allergy season

    My colleague Brady Dennis reported recently that the arrival of warmer weather will soon unleash a pollen tsunami in parts of the country where the winter has been especially long and cold. Here are some survival tips from Clifford W. Bassett, an allergy specialist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

    April 11, 2014

  • Is a paleo vegetarian diet possible?

    Research shows most people can follow a regimented eating plan for a short time. That's not the challenge. The challenge is finding a healthful eating plan you can follow day after day and achieve your long-term health goals. At this point, it doesn't appear that the paleo eating plan meets these objectives for most people.

    April 10, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.16.35 PM.png Are Americans smart to stop drinking diet sodas?

    Recent data from Beverage Digest suggest many are cutting back on diet sodas. Consumption of diet sodas fell more than that of sugary sodas in 2013. This raises two questions: Why is total consumption declining, and is drinking diet soda harmful to health?

    April 10, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content