Vigilance is the avatar of awareness, an important tool in helping us make sure that our planet is safe from the next extinction event… caused by our space-flung rocky neighbors.
Unfortunately, there are many times when we just never saw it coming. July 21st was yet again one of those days, as many astronomers around the world have horrifyingly realized.
We Saw… After it Passed By
If you hadn’t heard it on the news immediately, well… so did the scientists who were supposed to observe the object. Asteroid 2017 001, as it is now named, was detected on July 23rd, a whole two days after it went past our planet completely undetected last July 21st. How close did it get? Oh, just around 123,000 kilometers, about one-third our moon’s distance to Earth.
In other words, the space rock named 2017 001 managed to go past our planetary spaceship, only for us to finally realize its existence as we view it on our space rear mirror. If it was headed right towards Earth, its impact tremors would probably be heard first before anyone could see what had just happened.
Thankfully though, it didn’t hit Earth (surprise!). Asteroid 2017 001 was reported to be about 35 to 70 meters wide. For comparison, the asteroid that hit Chelyabinsk last 2013 was smaller at 20 meters, and the dinosaur-erasing asteroid was about 10 to 15 kilometers wide. Our recent rocky space visitor was also traveling at about 37,000 kilometers, roughly half of the Chelyabinsk meteor’s top speed (70,000 kilometers per hour). It was estimated that had it struck the planet, it would have the impact force of a small nuclear bomb.
Another Wake-Up Call for Earth
While incidences of such near-Earth misses aren’t something rare, or something that would be dangerous on a planetary scale, this does yet again put doubt at our current space detection systems. Other sightings have been woefully too late, but at least they managed to detect the object moments before passing by. Asteroid 2017 001 simply went through, only to be detected after it already zoomed by.
To our vigilant astronomers’ credit though, anything that can significantly affect the planet, are also considerably large and are thus easier to detect. Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that are about a kilometer wide or more, for instance, are all properly detected and monitored by all of Earth’s observing stations. Well, 90% of them at least, and except probably for a few oddballs that exhibit weird properties.
Still, it’d probably put us more at ease if we develop better detection methods for these small, elusive objects. If anything, knowing what’s up in time gives us the opening that we need to do something about it.