Breaking news for all you doomsday lovers out there: The 20-50 metre asteroid 2006 QV8 will NOT hit the Earth on 9th September.
There was a one in 7,000 chance (this is fleetingly small) that asteroid 2006 QV89 would impact Earth in two months, according to a European Space Agency and European Southern Observatory release. But follow-up observations have once again confirmed that none of the asteroids we know about are at risk of impacting the Earth. The same cannot be said of asteroids we don’t know about, of course.
At present, scientists monitor the sky for asteroids using a few surveys, and then a host of telescopes around the world are tasked with following up—taking more observations to gather the asteroid’s properties and trajectories. The more we know about these objects, the better we can calculate their orbits and assess how much of a risk they pose.
Scientists spotted 2006 QV89 in 2006, watched it for 10 days, and then couldn’t find it again. That’s not so surprising, given that 20-50 metres is quite small as far as space rocks go. Nonetheless, no one wants their community to be hit by an asteroid that large. A 20-metre asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia back in 2013, shattering windows throughout the city and injuring nearly 1,500 people (thankfully no deaths were linked to the blast). The effects of a larger asteroid might be worse.
So, rather than try to find the asteroid again to get better observations, scientists operating the ESO’s Very Large Telescope looked to a part of the sky on July 4 and 5 that the asteroid should have passed through if it were going to hit Earth this year. There was no asteroid—and thus, no need to worry about the impact, or future impacts, based on all of the data combined. This could be the first time that an asteroid strike has been ruled out in a method like this, according to the ESA.
Though we’re not threatened by any known asteroids today, space agencies make a big deal out of planetary defence—and they have a long way to go to improve their monitoring. Congress has tasked NASA to find 90 per cent of the asteroids bigger than 140 metres, but simulations and estimates suggest only around a third have been found so far, Kelly Fast, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations programme manager, recently told Gizmodo. The size of 140 metres was selected because these rocks could have catastrophic regional effects, but smaller asteroids can still pack a punch. Thankfully, statistics are on our side, and asteroids grow increasingly less common as they increase in radius.
This asteroid non-detection demonstrates an important, less-exciting piece of the scientific method. Sometimes, finding nothing is as important as finding something.
Featured image: ESO/ O. Hainaut/ ESA