Mountain-sized asteroid headed towards Earth

Huge rock could hit Earth in next 150 years, says scientist, but Nasa disagrees

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 10 December 2014 11:58
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An artist's view of a watery asteroid in white dwarf star system.
An artist's view of a watery asteroid in white dwarf star system.

A mountain-sized asteroid could hit Earth within the next 150 years, causing huge damage if it collides with the planet as it spins around it every three years.

The rock poses no immediate threat, but if it hit the Earth the impact would be 1000 times as large as a meteor that slipped through the atmosphere by surprise and crashed down near a Russian town in 2013. Scientists said at the time that impact should be a reminder of how dangerous smaller asteroids can be.

Because of the difficulty of tracking such rocks — whose paths are changed by the gravitational pull of the many planets that they pass by as they fly through space — it will be important to keep an eye on the asteroid in case it gets dangerously close to earth, said Vladimir Lipunov, of Moscow State University, who spotted the asteroid. The rock flies close to Earth every three years.

An asteroid damaged houses when it came to Earth by surprise in 2013

"We need to permanently track this asteroid, because even a small mistake in calculations could have serious consequences," said Lipunov.

The rock is about 400 meters wide and “returns to the Earth’s neighbourhood periodically”, Nasa said in a statement, while telling people not to worry.

Asteroid collisions with earth are not unheard of, and one crashed down in Russia, damaging buildings. Some scientists — including Brian Cox and Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal — have called for an asteroid detection programme to help spot asteroids before they arrive.

But 2014 UR116 is unlikely to hit Earth any time soon, said Nasa.

Nasa’s Near Earth Object Program said: “While this approximately 400-meter sized asteroid has a three year orbital period around the sun and returns to the Earth's neighborhood periodically, it does not represent a threat because its orbital path does not pass sufficiently close to the Earth's orbit.”

It said that one of its scientists had worked out the asteroids path again, using new information. That allowed Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work out “rule out this object as an impact threat to Earth (or any other planet) for at least the next 150 years”, Nasa said.

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