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Golden Gate Bridge-sized asteroid delivers a warning for humanity

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 30th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

With stately indifference, an asteroid capable of destroying all life on Earth will pass by us Friday, warning humanity with its close approach as it sails past. Asteroid 1998 QE2 will pass just 3.6 million miles from Earth.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - It is 1.7 miles in diameter, similar in size to the Golden Gate bridge, or as some comparisons have stated, as long as nine cruise ships. No matter the comparison, the size makes it a planet killer, and should 1998 QE2 ever impact the Earth, it would be the end of life as we know it on the planet.

Of course, it's going to miss. At 3.6 million miles, that more than 15 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. However, such close approaches are still alarming. The asteroid does not quite cross over into Earth's orbit, so as long as its elliptical orbit remains stable, there is no risk to Earth. However, the orbits of asteroids are subject to change.

Interactions with other planets via events such as close approaches, can perturb the orbit of an asteroid or a comet. Often these perturbations are minor, but with a 3.6 million-mile margin of safety, a slight perturbation is all that's needed.

Jupiter is a frequent culprit. It's immense mass means it has the ability to change the orbits of comets and asteroids at great distances. One pass near Jupiter and the asteroid could fly off into deep space, or take a new path that could one day put it on a collision course with Earth.

The good news is that we're well aware of 1998 QE2. It poses no danger to us because although it passes close today, it normally does not pass much closer. Yet, it's not the asteroids we know about that worry astronomers. It's the ones we still don't know about.

Astronomers estimate they have found only a fraction of the potentially deadly asteroids out there. An asteroid on the worst trajectory would likely approach from the direction of the sun and be invisible until the moment of impact, giving no warning of its pending arrival and the doom it would bring.

Astronomers know Earth will be hit again, it is merely a matter of time. What they don't know is if that time will be tomorrow or in millions of years. Either way, they're not sitting idle.

Today, 1998 QE2 will be observed by many astronomers, although most are ignoring it because it's not a genuine threat to Earth. Among those who will observe it will be the operators of large radio telescopes. They hope to map it, to improve their understanding of 1998 QE2, especially its shape and rotation. Knowing these things with accuracy can help them make predictions about the asteroids future course.

At the same time, astronomers and engineers will discuss how best to deflect an asteroid, should one be detected on a collision course with Earth. Will be strike at such a rock with nuclear weapons? Attach a massive solar sail to it? Perhaps even paint one side of it? Believe it or not, these are among the most feasible solutions that scientists have developed so far. They could work, but they require time.

To get that time, astronomers need to keep up their work of scanning the skies to find more asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet. Naturally, that requires funding, which is in short supply.

Perhaps we can afford to ignore these efforts for awhile longer, but as 1998 QE2 elegantly reminds us, we do so at our peril.

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