Just two days after it was first spotted by University of Arizona-based Catalina Sky Survey, a relatively small asteroid flew past the Earth at just half the distance separating the planet and its moon shortly before 8am EST on Monday morning, according to CNET and Space.com.
Known as 2017 AG13, the asteroid was only first spotted by scientists on Saturday, January 7. It is believed to be about 36 to 111 feet (11 to 34 meters) wide, meaning that it could be as large or even larger than the 65 foot (20 meter) wide object that exploded in the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013, injuring more than 1,000 people, based on media reports.
Initial observations of the asteroid indicate that it has a far more elliptical orbit than Earth and takes approximately 347 days to make one journey around the sun, Space.com explained. 2017 AG13 gets as close to the sun as 0.55 astronomical units (AU) and travels as much as 1.36 AU away. Earth, for reference sake, orbits the sun at a distance of between 0.98 and 1.02 AU.
So why did astronomers have such a difficult time finding it? As the Slooh Observatory noted, the object was moving at very fast speeds relative to Earth – 10 miles (16 kilometers) per second – and has a relatively low brightness level, which combined to make it difficult for telescopes to spot. Fortunately, 2017 AG13 was able to fly safely past the planet without incident.
Cause for concern? The White House apparently thinks so
Surprise flybys such as this one are believed to occur all the time, according to Space.com. In fact, experts believe that there are millions of asteroids located near the Earth, even though just 15,000 of them have been discovered thus far, including the majority of the largest ones.
Nonetheless, incidents such as the one involving 2017 AG13 prove that, despite the best efforts of researchers thus far, the planet is not completely safe from potential asteroid impacts, even if, as NASA experts insist, the ones capable of causing serious global damage are being tracked.
So is there cause for concern? The White House apparently thinks so, because as the folks at Gizmodo reported earlier this week, a leaked government document details a plan to deal with the potential impact of a Near-Earth Object (NEO) – the fancy name for things like asteroids.
The report lists seven primary goals: to improve the nation’s ability to track and classify NEOs, to find a way to move for destroy potential threats, to improve our ability to model and forecast potential threats, to devise emergency procedures in case we cannot move or destroy an NEO, to come up with an alerts system and recovery strategy, to reach out to other countries as part of our planning procedures, and to develop protocols for quick decision making.
“As with other low-probability, high-consequence hazards, potential NEO impacts pose a significant and complex challenge,” the document said. “This Strategy is a step in addressing the myriad challenges of managing and reducing the risks posed by both large and small NEOs. The seven high-level goals and associated objectives outlined in this Strategy support a collaborative and Federally-coordinated approach to developing effective policies, practices, and procedures for decreasing the Nation’s vulnerabilities associated with the NEO impact hazard.”
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech