A large asteroid whizzes past Earth this week

It’s the nightmare that launched a thousand disaster films: What if a giant object from outer space, like an asteroid or a comet, crashed into Earth and caused an extinction-level event?

Whenever a celestial competitor emerges from the cosmos, humanity pays attention, as happened when an asteroid approached Earth during the 2020 election season (it was never a threat) or when one big enough to wipe out a country just missed us (this happened in March last year). Today, an asteroid four times longer than the Empire State Building approaches our planet. If he struck, calamity would ensue.

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Although it’s not expected to hit, its size – and how close it will pass in front of Earth – means astronomers and space agencies are watching it. The barren monster is known as 1989 JA, or 7335, and is expected to miss us at about 10 times the average distance between Earth and the Moon, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). That’s 2.5 million miles, more than enough to ease the minds of people who had nightmares about ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon’. Yet with that comfort comes a caveat: NASA scientists recognize that because 1989 JA is so massive (it’s 1.1 miles in diameter) that they can’t dismiss it so responsible. It is therefore classified as “potentially dangerous” – because with any unexpected change in its orbit, or if its orbit was miscalculated, it could suddenly become deadly.

When 1989 JA passes Earth later this week, it will do so at a speed that would make even the most capable Western sniper blush, hurtling toward our planet at around 30,000 miles per hour.

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“To give some context, that’s 17 times the speed of a bullet in the air. At that speed, the asteroid could circle planet Earth in 45 minutes,” said Franck Marchis, director scientist with the Unistellar telescope company and senior planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute, explained to USA Today.

As the asteroid approaches at breakneck speed, astronomy fans will be able to view it live via telescopes in Chile and Australia.

If a worst-case scenario were to occur and human beings had to protect themselves from a killer asteroid or comet, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, humanity would not be without hope. In November, NASA launched a spacecraft called DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to collide with a pair of harmless asteroids named Didymos (nearly 800 meters wide) and Dimorphos (about 160 meters wide). Using the “kinetic impact” approach to protecting people from asteroids, DART is designed to deflect parts of these asteroids from Earth’s gravitational pull. The remaining sections of the asteroid should be small enough to burn up safely in the planet’s atmosphere.

Along the same lines, a group called the B612 Foundation exists to keep tabs on any celestial objects that could pose an existential threat to life on Earth.

“This is a problem that can absolutely be solved,” Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation, told Salon. “When you think about big global problems, a lot of them won’t be as easy to solve, certainly from changing human behavior to political agendas, but [asteroid impact] is smaller compared to famine or war or climate change. The B612 Foundation contracts out computational capabilities to help model future asteroid trajectories. these different factors that our solar system takes into account, you need this kind of computational capacity to model these moving objects over 10, 20, 40, 50 or 100 years.”

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