BY JAMES MAYNARD
Asteroid 2002 AJ129 will soar past Earth at nearly 67,000 miles per hour on February 4, more than 15 times faster than the fastest plane ever designed. This mountain of rock and ice, 1.1 km (0.7 miles) across, is longer than the tallest building in the world, and researchers are classifying the object as “potentially hazardous.”
Earth is safe from the object this time around, as the asteroid will miss our planet by approximately 4.2 million kilometers (2.6 million miles), roughly 11 times further away than the Moon. Astronomers tracking extraterrestrial objects approaching the Earth classify any body coming within 7.4 million kilometers (4.6 million miles) of our home world as “potentially hazardous.”
“Occasionally, asteroids’ orbital paths are influenced by the gravitational tug of planets, which cause their paths to alter. Scientists believe stray asteroids or fragments from earlier collisions have slammed into Earth in the past, playing a major role in the evolution of our planet,” reports Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
An asteroid measuring 19 meters (62 feet) in diameter exploded in the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring over 1,000 people.
Were 2002 AJ129 to strike the Earth, the environmental consequences could be severe, resulting in temperatures more than eight degrees Celcius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than today. Such a scenario could result in a mini-ice age, plummeting much of the planet into a period of darkness and widespread crop shortages lasting several years.
“On an average of every several hundred thousand years or so, asteroids larger than a kilometer could cause global disasters. In this case, the impact debris would spread throughout the Earth’s atmosphere so that plant life would suffer from acid rain, partial blocking of sunlight, and from the firestorms resulting from heated impact debris raining back down upon the Earth’s surface,” The Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) reports.
Currently, astronomers know of approximately 17,500 near-Earth objects (NEO’s) which possess orbits bringing them as close to the Sun or closer than our own world. However, engineers are still attempting to find a method to deflect a threatening object once one is found. In 2024, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will launch a spacecraft the size of a refrigerator at a non-threatening asteroid attempting divert the object, to see if such a planetary defense plan is feasible for future threats.
Photo: Asteroid Ida and its satellite, Dactyl, imaged by the Galileo Spacecraft. Image Courtesy NASA/JPL/USGS.