Whenever scientists announce an upcoming close encounter with an asteroid, certain corners of the internet light up like the synaptic rush that accompanies a meth binge, with panicky headlines shouted straight from the brain stem. But never mind that. We’re not that corner of the internet. We’re sober, yo!
The fact of the matter is, there aren’t any more near-Earth asteroids than there used to be. We’re just getting good at detecting them.
The latest one is called 2006QV89 (We’re going to call it QV for short), and it’s a football field-sized chunk of rock. But don’t let that frighten you, it’s really only 40 meters in diameter (48.5 meters wide x 109 meters long.) Some are feeling panicky, (or they couldn’t care less but want you to panic for clicks). Part of the problem is that the ESA has put it on their risk list, which sounds ominous.
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All the risk list really means is that the rock has a non-zero chance of striking Earth. It doesn’t mean it’s really big, or that it would threaten civilization if it did collide with us. It just means they’ve taken notice of it and are watching it with one of Earth’s many telescopes capable of keeping an eye on it. No plans to fly into space and make it go boom.
According to the ESA, QV has a 1 in 7,299 chance of striking Earth. That’s nowhere near the 1 in 100 threshold that would mean we need to take action. In fact, here’s how insignificant this asteroid is: there are over 850 other asteroids on the risk list, and some of them are near a kilometer in diameter. (The Chicxulub dinosaur-killer was somewhere between 11 km and 81 km in diameter.)
QV is also over 6.7 million km (4.2 million miles) away from Earth, and won’t be at its closest approach until September, according to the ESA. There’s lots of time to dig a big hole in your yard and fill it with guns, ammo, and food.
Seriously though, this one’s nothing to worry about. NASA and the ESA and other space-smart countries are always keeping an eye on the skies and cataloguing all the Near-Earth-Objects (NEOs) just in case one comes for us. We keep hearing about them because we’re so good at spotting them. Eventually, we’ll stop reporting every one of them. But the risk of doing that is that certain other dark corners of the internet will scream conspiracy. “What Is NASA Hiding From Us!?!?” and all that.
If you’re still worried, or know someone who is, keep something in mind. Sure, the ESA keeps a Risk List of asteroids, and sure there are over 850 asteroids on that list, including the soon-to-be-forgotten 2006QV89. But they also have another list.
That other object is the Priority List. It’s basically a list that classifies objects needing follow up. The Priority List itself has four subcategories: low priority, useful, necessary, and at the top, urgent.
Urgent Priority Follow-Up Asteroid Approaching Earth!
If you ever see that headline, then you can freak out.