Astronomers are warning us that asteroid 2014 DX110 is on target to hurtle between the Earth and the Moon on Wednesday, passing close to our planet at a distance of just 217,000 miles (350,000km).
At 98ft (30m), 2014 DX110 is a relatively large object belonging to the Apollo class asteroid group, a class of Earth-crossing objects that pose a potential threat of impact. Scientists are currently aware of 240 Apollo asteroids, but it is thought that there could be at least 2000 Earth-crossers with diameters of 1 km or larger. If one of these giants hit Earth, it could carve out a crater about 10-20 times its own size.
An Apollo class asteroid did explode over the Russian town of Chelyabinsk on February 15th, 2013, causing considerable damage to buildings and 1,500 injuries amongst local residents, though fortunately the massive blast did not result in any fatalities. Last month, another huge asteroid the size of three football fields, 2000 EM26, whizzed past us at a less threatening distance of 2,094,400 miles.
"We continue to discover these potentially hazardous asteroids — sometimes only days before they make their close approaches to Earth," Slooh's technical and research director, Paul Cox commented in a statement last month as EM26 was set to zoom by. "Slooh’s asteroid research campaign is gathering momentum with Slooh members using the Slooh robotic telescopes to monitor this huge population of potentially hazardous space rocks. We need to find them before they find us!"
According to scientists, large "Near Earth Objects" (NEOs) appear to be entering Earth's atmosphere with alarming frequency. A report published in the journals Nature and Science proposed that chunks of space rock comparable to the Chelyabinsk meteor were up to seven times more likely to hit Earth than previous calculations had suggested. According to NASA scientist Paul Chodas, this means that there could be up to 20 million meteors rocketing towards us through the solar system.
These calculations increase the likely frequency of impact or a Chelyabinsk-style explosion from once every 150 years to just once every 30 years, though some astronomers are still making more conservative predictions.
"On a practical level, a previously-unknown, undiscovered asteroid seems to hit our planet and cause damage or injury once a century or so, as we witnessed on June 20, 1908 and February 15, 2013," Slooh astronomer Bob Berman said in a statement. "Every few centuries, an even more massive asteroid strikes us — fortunately usually impacting in an ocean or wasteland such an Antarctica."
Whatever the predicted frequency of impact, it is almost certain that Earth will receive a significant clout from the cosmos at some point in the relatively near future, and so scientists are warning that the threat should be taken seriously and preparations made to avoid or reduce potential damage.
"The ongoing threat, and the fact that biosphere-altering events remain a real if small annual possibility, suggests that discovering and tracking all NEOs, as well as setting up contingency plans for deflecting them on short notice should the need arise, would be a wise use of resources," warned Bob Berman.
Earth is not the only planet in the firing line from space missiles: last week, a 400 kg meteor crashed into the moon at a speed of 36,600 mph, leaving behind a 40-meter-wide crater.
DX110 will be travelling at a speed of approximately 33,000 miles per hour as it zips past our planet, and scientists currently predict that there is no danger of it colliding with Earth. The asteroid is expected to make its closest passage to Earth at 16:07 p.m. EST, (21:07 GMT) and should be visible via live online webcasts sharing real-time images. The webcasts can be accessed via Slooh and Virtual Telescope, and will begin at 15:30 EST (20:30 GMT).
A comment from Whitley Strieber:
This object was discovered just a few days ago. Had it been traveling at 24,000 miles per hour or less, it would have been drawn into Earth orbit and eventually impacted us, with devastating results. Such objects are appearing with greater frequency, and it is essential that Congress give NASA the budget it needs to track them. Even if we are unable to prevent an impact, early warning is essential.