Is life imitating art? If you watched either of the 1998 movies Deep Impact or Armageddon, you may have an idea of the future that faces Earth.
On July 9, 2002, the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Project (an MIT Lincoln Laboratory program funded by the United States Air Force and NASA) in New Mexico detected a 1.2-mile-wide (2 km) asteroid. It has an orbit around our sun of 837 days, and early calculations indicate there is a small chance that this asteroid will collide with Earth on February 1, 2019.
Astronomers from NASA and around the world will be monitoring the asteroid, known as 2002 NT7, but say that the calculations are very preliminary and the actual chance of it striking our planet are minimal, it may not be on an actual collision course.
Donald Yeomans, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California says, "The threat is very minimal." Scientists say that more observations of the object will be made over the next few months to help calculate the course of asteroid 2002 NT7 more accurately. "An object of this size would be expected to hit the Earth every few million years, continued Yeomans, and as we get additional data I think this threat will go away."
The Near Earth Object Program is a NASA project established in 1998 to help coordinate, and provide a focal point for, the study of those comets and asteroids that can approach the Earth's orbit. The program is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. They would be the first organization to react and alert NASA if an asteroid, comet, or meteor were found to be on a collision course with Earth.
While they are monitoring this new threat, they give 2002 NT7 a rating of 1 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale.
According to NASA, asteroids big enough to cause catastrophic destruction could theoretically hit Earth every million years, or at longer intervals.
On June 14, 2002, asteroid 2002 MN, which was the size of a soccer field, passed within 75,000 miles of the Earth. Thats less than one-third of the distance to the moon. Had this object struck the Earth, it would have released the energy of a large nuclear weapon. This was one of the closest encounters we have had since scientists have been keep track.
The result of an impact by 2002 NT7 would be destruction of biblical proportions as Billy Bob Thorntons character says in Armageddon, but, dont panic yet. "One way or another, this thing is coming off the risk page," said Donald Yeomans. He calculates the odds of a strike at about one in 250,000, and says those odds will likely be adjusted even lower.
It appears that we dodged a bullet this time with asteroid 2002 NT7. NASA's Near Earth Object Program released this statement:
"With the processing of a few more observations of asteroid 2002 NT7 through July 28, we can now rule out any Earth impact possibilities for February 1, 2019. While we cannot yet completely rule out an impact possibility on February 1, 2060, it seems very likely that this possibility will be soon ruled out as well as additional positional observations are processed.
"Because the SENTRY system tracks a multitude of test particles in an effort to map the uncertainties of the asteroid's future positions, some of these test particles can take slightly different dynamical paths. Hence there are currently two entries for 2060 in our IMPACT RISK table. The entry with the higher risk (larger Palermo Technical Scale) would be the value that would then take precedence."
While this particular asteroid appears to not be a threat to Earth at this time, the Near Earth Object Program and other agencies continue to monitor space for other threats. After all, it is a big universe, and there are a lot of asteroids and comets out there.