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Earth’s recent asteroid encounter is closest in 200 years

Max Corneau, www.AstroDad.com

Howdy!*  Looks like I’m the newest columnist here at the Blue Ribbon News. Our family is into our second decade of living in Rockwall and I’m very passionate about astronomy.  Since my personal mission statement (it’s on my astrodad website so it must be true) is to elevate the human condition by increasing our sense of place in the Universe, writing a column helps me accomplish my mission.  I undertake all manner of activities in the name of astronomy outreach to the public.  Years ago I wrote for a paper in Rockwall but that ended when duty called me away to work in the Pentagon. 

Enough about my not-so-hidden agenda.  It happened again last week.  Earth barely, and I mean BARELY missed being blown to smithereens (I love that word) by a giant asteroid larger than an aircraft carrier. 

The asteroid is named 2005 YU55 and it’s larger than our Nimitz-class super carriers.  The asteroid came screaming in toward Earth and missed us by a cricket’s eyelash (not much). According to the Jet Propulsion Lab who tracks this kind of thing for NASA, the trajectory of asteroid 2005 YU55 is well understood. At the point of closest approach on 8 November, 2011 the asteroid was no closer than 201,700 miles as measured from the center of Earth, or about 0.85 times the distance from the moon to Earth. 

I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, because the gravitational influence of the asteroid will have no detectable effect on Earth, including tides and tectonic plates. You see, YU2005 is on what we call an Earth-Crossing orbit that regularly brings it back to the vicinity of Earth, Venus and Mars. The 2011 encounter with Earth was the closest encounter between this asteroid and Earth for at least the last 200 years. 

A couple of my friends work on a telescope in Hawaii called Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System).  One of these gents used to be a professor at UTD in fact.  Pan-STARRS which became operational in May 2010 maps 1/6 of the whole sky in five wavelengths about every 30 days (nights).  The Pan-STARRS camera was named as one of the top 20 engineering marvels of the world  in 2008.  The 1.4 gigapixel camera on Pan-STARRS is as large as a refrigerator. 

Unfortunately, with all this detection I’m afraid we’re only going to know that much sooner that we are in the crosshairs of a killer asteroid because there’s nothing we can do about them today.  Also, it’s unlikely that we have some hush-hush program that is being kept in the closet, just waiting to be hauled out and so America can once again be Earth’s hero…

Something that I don’t understand is that we (humans) have perfected so many ways to wage war on each other over the past 500 years since we first embraced rational science, but we have not worked on the things that could destroy our species. With all this technology we is it that we haven’t scratched the surface on how to protect ourselves from these deadly space rocks.  The fact that there are rocks right now bouncing around our solar system that have the potential to wipe us all out here on Earth is a sure thing. However we choose not to fund research into a system that could someday be pressed into service to deflect or destroy a giant space rock heading at Earth. We can do incredible systems engineering on large scales and build mind-boggling systems.  It sure would be great if we could use our technology to truly keep us safe. 

If you are interested in knowing more about what scientists refer to as P-H-As, (Potentially Hazardous Asteroids) please visit the NASA site neo.jpl.nasa.gov/neo/groups.html dedicated to Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and PHAs.  At the base of the splash page is a statement regarding the number of PHAs.  As of this writing, there are 1,265 potentially hazardous asteroids out there.  Lets hope one of them doesn’t go crazy after bumping into one of its orbital pals and comes careening into Earth.

Max Corneau and his family have lived in Rockwall since 2000. Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.

* Howdy!  The traditional greeting of Texas A&M University.  Howdy is also referred to as a “spirit” or way of being in many TAMU official publications.  The author’s first born son is an Aggie and the entire family embraces the spirit of Howdy! 

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