Don’t Panic Over the Risk of an Asteroid Smashup in 2046

NASA visualization of asteroid 2023 DW
A visualization from NASA's "Eyes on Asteroids" app shows asteroid 2023 DW's location in space. (Credit: NASA)

A newly discovered asteroid called 2023 DW has generated quite a buzz over the past week, due to an estimated 1-in-670 chance of impact on Valentine’s Day 2046. But despite a NASA advisory and the resulting scary headlines, there’s no need to put an asteroid doomsday on your day planner for that date.

The risk assessment doesn’t have as much to do with the probabilistic roll of the cosmic dice than it does with the uncertainty that’s associated with a limited set of astronomical observations. If the case of 2023 DW plays out the way all previous asteroid scares have gone over the course of nearly 20 years, further observations will reduce the risk to zero. (Update: After further observations, 2023 DW was removed from the list of potential impacts on March 20.)

The hubbub over a space rock that could be as wide as 165 feet (50 meters) highlights a couple of trends to watch for: We’re likely to get more of these asteroid alerts in the years to come, and NASA is likely to devote more attention to heading off potentially dangerous near-Earth objects, or NEOs.

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A 500-Meter-Long Asteroid Flew Past Earth, and Astronomers Were Watching

This collage shows six planetary radar observations of 2011 AG5 a day after the asteroid made its close approach to Earth on Feb. 3. With dimensions comparable to the Empire State Building, 2011 AG5 is one of the most elongated asteroids to be observed by planetary radar to date. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An asteroid the size of the Empire State Building flew past Earth in early February, coming within 1.8 million km (1.1 million miles) of our planet. Not only is it approximately the same size as the building, but astronomers found the asteroid – named 2011 AG5 — has an unusual shape, with about the same dimensions as the famous landmark in New York City.

“Of the 1,040 near-Earth objects observed by planetary radar to date, this is one of the most elongated we’ve seen,” said Lance Benner, principal scientist at JPL who helped lead the observations, in a JPL press release.

This extremely elongated asteroid has a length-to-width ratio of 10:3.

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ESA is Building an Early Warning System for Dangerous Asteroids

A graphic showing the concept for the NEOMIR orbiting observatory will act as an early warning system to detect and monitor any asteroid coming towards Earth from the Sun’s direction. Credit: ESA.

The European Space Agency is working on a new mission that would act as an early warning system for dangerous, hard-to-see asteroids. Called NEOMIR (Near-Earth Object Mission in the InfraRed), the spacecraft would orbit between the Earth and the Sun at the L1 Lagrange Point, finding space rocks that otherwise get lost in the glare of the Sun.

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A Green Bank Telescope Prototype Radar System Can Image the Moon in High-Resolution and Detect Asteroids

Prototype radar image zoom-in of Tycho Crater floor in 5-meter resolution detail. (Credit: Raytheon Technologies)

Everyone loves taking pictures of the Moon. Whether it’s with their phones or through the wonders of astrophotography, photographing the Moon reminds us about the wonders and awesomeness of the universe. But while we can take awesome images of the whole Moon from the Earth, it’s extremely difficult to get close-up images of its surface given the enormous distance we are from our nearest celestial neighbor at 384,400 km (238,855 mi). This is because the closer we try to zoom in on its surface, the blurrier, or more pixelated, the images become. Essentially, the resolution of the images becomes worse and worse. But what if we could take high-resolution images of the Moon’s surface from Earth instead of relying on satellites presently in lunar orbit to take them for us?

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JWST Unexpectedly Finds a Small Asteroid During ‘Failed’ Observations

Illustration of Asteroid (Artist’s Impression). Credit: N. Bartmann (ESA/Webb), ESO/M. Kornmesser and S. Brunier, N. Risinger

While astronomers and engineers were trying to calibrate one of the James Webb Space Telescope’s instruments last summer, they serendipitously found a previously unknown small 100–200-meter (300-600 ft) asteroid in the main asteroid belt. Originally, the astronomers deemed the calibrations as a failed attempt because of technical glitches. But they noticed the asteroid while going through their data from the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), and ended up finding what is likely the smallest object observed to date by JWST. It is also one of the smallest objects ever detected in our Solar System’s main belt of asteroids.

“We — completely unexpectedly — detected a small asteroid in publicly available MIRI calibration observations,” explained Thomas Müller, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, in a press release. “The measurements are some of the first MIRI measurements targeting the ecliptic plane and our work suggests that many, new objects will be detected with this instrument.”

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Don’t Bother Trying to Destroy Rubble Pile Asteroids

Detailed view of the rubble-pile asteroid 25143 Itokawa visited by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa in 2005. Credit: JAXA

The asteroids in our Solar System are survivors. They’ve withstood billions of years of collisions. The surviving asteroids are divided into two groups: monolithic asteroids, which are intact chunks of planetesimals, and rubble piles, which are made of up fragments of shattered primordial asteroids.

It turns out there are far more rubble pile asteroids than we thought, and that raises the difficulty of protecting Earth from asteroid strikes.

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The Outer Solar System Supplied a Surprising Amount of Earth’s Water

Currently exploring the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is just one of five spacecraft to reach beyond 50 astronomical units, on its way out of the solar system and, eventually, into interstellar space. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

In a recent study published in Science, a team of researchers at Imperial College London examined 18 meteorites containing the volatile element zinc to help determine their origin, as it has been long hypothesized that Earth’s volatiles materials, including water, were derived from asteroids closer to our home planet. However, their results potentially indicate a much different origin story.

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Lucy Adds Another Asteroid to its Flyby List

This artist's illustration shows NASA's Lucy spacecraft close to one of its targets. NASA has added another asteroid, the eleventh, to Lucy's mission. Image Credit: NASA/SWRI/GSFC

In October 2021, NASA launched its ambitious Lucy mission. Its targets are asteroids, two in the main belt and eight Jupiter trojans, which orbit the Sun in the same path as Jupiter. The mission is named after early hominin fossils (Australopithecus afarensis,) and the name pays homage to the idea that asteroids are fossils from the Solar System’s early days of planet formation.

Visiting ten asteroids in one mission is the definition of ambitious, and now NASA is adding an eleventh.

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Asteroids Didn’t Create the Moon’s Largest Craters. Left-Over Planetesimals Did

The largest impact basin on the Moon is the South-Pole Aitken basin. It, and other impact basins, were created by planetesimals according to a new study. Image Credit: Moriarty et al., 2021.

The Moon’s pock-marked surface tells the story of its history. It’s marked by over 9,000 impact craters, according to the International Astronomical Union (IAU.) The largest ones are called impact basins, not craters. According to a new study, asteroids didn’t create the basins; leftover planetesimals did.

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What Would Asteroid Mining do to the World's Economy?

Artist's impression of an astronaut conducting an EVA with an asteroid. Credit: NASA

About a decade ago, the prospect of “asteroid mining” saw a massive surge in interest. This was due largely to the rise of the commercial space sector and the belief that harvesting resources from space would soon become a reality. What had been the stuff of science fiction and futurist predictions was now being talked about seriously in the business sector, with many claiming that the future of resource exploitation and manufacturing lay in space. Since then, there’s been a bit of a cooling off as these hopes failed to materialize in the expected timeframe.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a human presence in space will entail harvesting resources from Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and beyond. In a recent paper, a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, examined the potential impact of asteroid mining on the global economy. Based on their detailed assessment that includes market forces, environmental impact, asteroid and mineral type, and the scale of mining, they show how asteroid mining can be done in a way that is consistent with the Outer Space Treaty (i.e., for the benefit of all humanity).

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