We may not have noticed, but on Thursday afternoon an asteroid 100 feet in diameter, the size of a small office building, made the closest approach ever recorded to the Earth, missing us by one-tenth of the distance between here and the Moon. It was discovered only two days ago.
Jeff Hecht writes in New Scientist that the previous record for a near-miss occurred on September 27, 2003, when asteroid 2003 SQ222 missed the earth by about twice that distance. We didn’t know about that one until it already passed us by, since it came from inside the Earth’s orbit.
The latest asteroid, 2004 FH, was too small to cause widespread damage if it hit us, and like many asteroids, it would have been more likely to explode in the air. However, if this happens on a large enough scale, it can release particles that shade the sun, killing off plants and animals in a kind of “nuclear winter.”
Andrew Bridges writes that astronomers discovered the asteroid during a routine survey carried out with a pair of NASA telescopes in New Mexico. NASA’s Steve Chesley says, “It immediately became clear it would pass very close by the Earth.” It could swing by again in the future and threaten us once more.
Asteroids this size pass by close to the Earth about once every two years. “The important thing is not that it’s happening, but that we detected it,” Chesley says. However, detecting it two days before a possible impact wouldn’t have given us enough time to do anything about it.
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