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Doomsday Asteroid 2/15/2020, How Close?

Don’t worry about this one, but there may eventually be a real doomsday asteroid. The fast 34,000 mph, 3,280 foot asteroid named “2002 PZ39” will get closest to earth at 6:05 a.m. Saturday, February 15, 2020. It will not hit us, says NASA. It will remain 15 times the distance of the moon on this pass.

projected path of doomsday space rock
Projected path of 163373 for Feb 2020 from JPL Small-Body Database

This asteroid will be around again but it is not projected to be a threat to the earth in any future projections that NASA has listed. Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell stated that it has some bad potential if it does ever hit the Earth.

“It plows into the Earth, it makes a huge crater, it throws enormous amounts of earth material into the atmosphere. It could set fire to a large fraction of a continent. Then you’d have a lot of dust in the atmosphere for years and years afterward. It would wipe out all life for a thousand miles around, and then knock-on consequences for the environment for decades.”

via DenverPost

While it may not be an extinction level impact, it would cause untold death and destruction and would change the earth for many years.

NASA’s Sentry system keeps an eye on these types of threats.

Sentry is a highly automated collision monitoring system that continually scans the most current asteroid catalog for possibilities of future impact with Earth over the next 100 years. Whenever a potential impact is detected it will be analyzed and the results immediately published here, except in unusual cases where we seek independent confirmation.

In the case of 2002 PZ39, you won’t find it if you search the Sentry database for possible collisions. It is instead found in the list of removed objects. It was removed as a possible collision on 2002-08-13 11:36:17

Unfortunately, the NASA detection system is not perfect. Smaller “city-killing” asteroids that can do damage on the scale of an atomic bomb have avoided observation until a few days before they pass by.

Last year, astronomers didn’t notice a potential city-killing asteroid until a few days before it whipped past the planet at a distance much closer than the moon. The asteroid didn’t hit Earth, but it sparked public fear because astronomers didn’t see it coming.

via GlobalNews

If we have enough time, and if we believe an asteroid would impact us, one potential plan is to attach rockets to it to either speed it up or slow it down. This is better than blowing it up. If we did have the ability to blow it up, all of the material from it would still hit and cause possibly even more damage to a wider area.

Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater. Photo credit: Erik Charlton.

The take home point is that this one is not a threat, but the threat of giant space rocks is real.

If you live in the USA, at some point you should visit Meteor Crater in Coconino County, Arizona to get a feeling for how big these things can be. Stand there and be a little speck on the rim. Then consider this: The rock that made this massive crater was only 160 feet wide.  Now remember again that 2002 PZ39 is 3,280 feet wide. Get it? Imagine this crater about 20 times bigger, or more, because the Meteor Crater impactor may have “only” been traveling at 29,000 mph compared to 2002 PZ39’s 34,000 mph.

Of course, the density of the space rock that hits matters a great deal. The 160 foot space rock that made Meteor Crater was made of iron. Iron meteorites may have once been part of the core of a long-vanished planet. If 2002 PZ39 was made of rock instead of iron, the damage would be less than if it is pure iron, but still significant.

There are people we’ve read on social media complaining about money spent on space programs and on “useless” things like bigger and better rockets. It all seems so unnecessary … until those rockets are the only thing that can save all life on earth. The effort to detect and deflect space rocks could be the only thing that matters to every human being some day. We should prioritize this work now. We should be doing tests so we know in advance what works and what doesn’t.


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