Asteroids Galore!

Head’s up! You’re going to hear a lot about asteroids over the next week or so. The good news is that none of it is related to any specific asteroid hitting us. This media blitz is due to a trifecta of asteroid related events this week.

One big reason you’ll hear so much about asteroids is because Asteroid Day is on June 30th, which is the anniversary of the asteroid impact at Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. Here’s a clip in which Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the surprisingly glitzy history of Asteroid Day.

Asteroid Day does inspire some dramatic media. For example, last year the Science Channel enlisted Neil deGrasse Tyson to narrate this 360° Video simulation of the Tunguska event.

Another reason you’ll be hearing about asteroids in the news this week is because a Japanese space probe called Hayabusa2 has just successfully arrived at an asteroid named Ryugu. Hayabusa2 will stay at Ryugu until the end of 2019 when it is scheduled to return samples to Earth around the end of 2020. Here’s a one minute info. clip from USA Today that explains the mission and shows hot off the press footage of Ryugu.


Japan’s Hayabusa2 Spacecraft Nears Its Target, the Asteroid Ryugu (Jeremy Hsu, Scientific American)
A Japanese Probe Is Closing in on an Asteroid 180 Million Miles from Earth (Elizabeth Howell, Space.com)

Finally, a third event driving this week’s asteroid media blitz is a publication of a report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy describing how the U.S. government plans to deal with the threat of asteroids. The report was actually released on June 20th, but it is just now making headlines in concert with stories about Asteroid Day and Hayabusa2.

Here’s a more in depth explanation of what NASA can do if an asteroid threatens to hit Earth as well as a description of an ongoing mission to visit an asteroid named Bennu, which is one of the most intimidating Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) out there.

The plan is online, so you can read it yourself.
National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Plan (NASA/JPL)

The star of most news stories about the risk of asteroids hitting Earth is NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. Back in April they released their fourth year of survey data along with this dramatic one minute visualization of the data.

After watching that visualization, it is easy to understand why there are objects out there that NEOWISE hasn’t found yet. There is also definite proof of that from time to time. For example, the week before NASA released the report and visualization in April, there was an unexpected near miss with a Tunguska sized asteroid. Here’s an clip of Matt Yurus reporting on the incident from Philly and some links to articles about it.


Tunguska Size Asteroid Makes Surprise Flyby of Earth (Hanneke Weitering, Space.com)
How a Football Field-Size Asteroid Caught Us by Surprise (Elizabeth Howell, Live Science)
Asteroid buzzed Earth this weekend (Eddie Irizarry, Earth Sky)
Weekend Asteroid Flyby Confirms We’re Worrying About the Wrong Space Rocks (Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Gizmodo)

Then on June 2nd an asteroid disintegrated over Africa just a few hours after it was discovered. Here’s the same reporter, Matt Yurus from Philly, covering the incident along with a link to NASA’s announcement about it. He puts a positive spin on the achievement of it being spotted ahead of time, but it’s unnerving to know that’s still an exception rather than the rule.


Tiny Asteroid Discovered Saturday Disintegrates Hours Later Over Southern Africa

So, should you be worried? Well, the answer depends on scientific data, and that means that there are bound to be a range of opinions and some controversy about how to interpret it. However, most experts agree that the probability of anyone being hurt by an asteroid in their lifetimes are exceedingly low. Here are a few sources that cover the question specifically.
Will an Asteroid Hit Earth? Are We All Doomed? (Robert Roy Britt, Live Science)
Odds of Death by Asteroid? Lower Than Plane Crash, Higher Than Lightning (Adam Mann, Wired)

So there you have it. That’s the story about all of the stories about asteroids.

Of course, it would be kind of odd to wish someone Happy Asteroid Day. However, if you do decide to acknowledge the special day with a special salutation, perhaps a better one would be Happy No Asteroid Day?

Here are more articles and links about asteroids.
Tracking the threat of asteroids and comets (James Shewaga, University of Saskatchewan, Phys.org)
Preparing for the Asteroid Apocalypse (Justin Bachman, Bloomberg)
Periodic impact cratering and extinction events over the last 260 million years (Michael R. Rampino and Ken Caldeira)
International Asteroid Day: Are we ready if an asteroid strikes Earth? (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

Asteroid Day (Official Site)
Asteroid Watch (NASA/JPL)
Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS, JPL)
Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (Minor Planet Center, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Potentially hazardous object (Wikipedia)
Solar System Exploration, Asteroids (NASA)

Find out more about asteroids