Hazardous Skyscraper-Sized Asteroid Passing Earth Exposes Future Threats
The sheer number of potentially world-ending asteroids swinging by our planet each month is enough to make a stargazer paranoid, but at least the latest one, VR12, will put on a show for almost anyone with a telescope.
VR12 is a "potentially hazardous" near-Earth Object about 700-1,500 feet in diameter (for comparison, the Empire State Building is about 1,454 feet tall), and it'll be passing by Earth at a distance of around 900,000 miles early tomorrow (March 7). This is close enough to pick it up with backyard telescopes, provided you know where to look. To watch VR12 online, you can click here.
Apart from being a great reason to finally get into amateur astronomy, VR12's relatively close pass by the Earth gives astronomers a chance to study the asteroid and learn more about others like it.
According to Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies: "If we ever had to deflect a threatening asteroid, we would need to know physical properties like this, as well as other properties, like the expected internal strength...We know very little about these topics right now." Chodas says professional astronomers will be able to figure out VR12's "rotational properties, spin rate and pole direction," and "spectral class," all of which will tell us about its behavior and what it's made of.
Figuring out how to deal with asteroids like VR12 is going to be a major issue within the couple centuries. Though NASA's Planetary Defense program doesn't recognize any world-ending threats coming in the near-future, they acknowledge that we can be struck by something like the Chelyabinsk meteor at any time.
For the truly cataclysmic threats, we're going to need to know more about our rocky neighbors:
"Research indicates that the best technique to use to divert an asteroid from its impact course with Earth is scenario-dependent. That is, the choice of method for impact mitigation depends on the orbit of the object and its composition, bulk properties, and relative velocity, as well as the probability of impact and the predicted impact location."
VR12 may have spared the Earth, but studying it may do more to keep us safe.