February 16, 2013

Near-Earth objects: 'Exciting day ... like a shooting gallery'

Astronomers are giddy as NASA broadcasts live on the day an asteroid flies within 17,000 miles of Earth.

By ERIKA BOLSTAD McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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Former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart holds a model of an asteroid over a globe in 2005 to demonstrate the devastation such an impact would have.

Associated Press file photos

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The 4,000-foot-wide Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz., was created by what scientists believe was a 10,000,000-ton meteorite 500 centuries ago.

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"There should be some tens of millions in annual funding in order to meet the goal that Congress has set, which is to follow anything of significance in the asteroid/meteor category," Holt said. "And we're not doing anything close to that."

And yet, Smith said in his statement, "Fifty years ago, we would have had no way of seeing an asteroid like this coming."

Astronomers were giddy Friday as NASA broadcast live from one of the best space-viewing points in the world, the Gingin Observatory near Perth, Australia.

"What an exciting day. It's like a shooting gallery," said Paul Chodas of NASA's Near-Earth Object program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "We have two rare events of near-objects approaching the Earth on the same day."

The two objects had different trajectories, and the asteroid monitored worldwide Friday was much larger -- about the length of half a football field.

The asteroid was the closest known object of its size to fly by Earth. Unlike the Russian meteor, scientists were aware of it and accurately predicted that it would come closer than some weather and communication satellites but leave them unharmed. Those satellites orbit about 23,000 miles up; the meteorite came within about 17,000 miles from Earth.

There was never a risk the large asteroid would collide with Earth, but if one of its size were to hit here, "its crater would be larger than Monaco," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the "StarTalk" radio program, said Friday.

Smaller meteorites crash to Earth daily -- they can be seen as "shooting stars." But most aren't found, said Marc Fries, a research associate at Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Many fall into the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the Earth. Or they enter the atmosphere in remote places where they go unseen.

According to NASA, Meteor Crater in Arizona is the best preserved crater on Earth and measures about 4,000 feet in diameter. It provides a good example of what sort of impact meteors can have.

Few are as dramatic or as big as the one caught on video in Russia. Thanks to the dashboard-mounted cameras that many Russians use to deter police corruption, the asteroid's meteoric path was filmed from cars.


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