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Another Close Call

It has just been revealed that on January 13, astronomers came within a few minutes of telling the world that an asteroid was about to impact the Earth. Asteroid expert Clark Chapman says it was a "nine-hour crisis." It was an amateur astronomer who finally figured out it wasn't going to hit us.

David Whitehouse writes in bbcnews.com that some astronomers believed that asteroid 2004 AS1 had a one-in-four chance of hitting the Earth on January 14 or 15. At less than a mile wide, it was not big enough to cause a major extinction event, but it would have caused widespread local damage wherever it landed. Scientists knew it would hit the Northern Hemisphere, but had no idea exactly where. They were about to alert President Bush when they discovered the asteroid would pass us by. If it had been about to impact, scientists would have begun bouncing radar signals off it in order to predict where it would land. Since according to statistical odds, it would be most likely to land in the ocean, the biggest danger would have been if it had exploded in the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and causing a "nuclear winter."

Chapman reveals that the asteroid was first spotted by twin optical telescopes in New Mexico, which sent details to the Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts. The MPC posted the details on the internet and asked other astronomers to take a look at the asteroid. It was expected to grow 40 times brighter the next day, which is a sign an asteroid is getting closer very quickly. But the object had only been observed four times and astronomers hadn?t identified its orbit. The question was: should they warn the world or keep quiet until they were sure? "They completely misread the situation," says astronomer Benny Peiser. "There was plenty of time to get other observers on the job."

NASA's Steven Chesley sent out an e-mail saying the asteroid had a 25% chance of striking the Earth in a few days. This was when Clark Chapman and David Morrison, of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Near Earth Objects, considered making an early morning call to the White House. Brian Marsden, of the Minor Planet Center, says, "That would have jumped the gun before we knew much about the object. I find it incredible that such action was contemplated on the basis of just four observations. That is just not enough to yield a sensible orbit. There was no need to panic as it was obvious that the situation would have been resolved, one way or another, in another hour or two."

It was an amateur astronomer who saved the day. After receiving the Chesley e-mail, he managed to take a picture of the sky during a moment when the clouds had parted. If the asteroid had been aiming for the Earth, it would have been in the picture, but it wasn't, meaning it wasn't going to impact. If the sky had stayed cloudy, however, there might have been no choice but to raise the alarm. Marsden says, "If it had been cloudy and the call had been made to the President it would have been disastrous."

2004 AS1 eventually passed by at a distance of about 32 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, so it turned out to pose no danger to life on Earth.

If the government keeps asteroid information secret from the public, what aren't they telling us about UFOs?

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