Armegeddon Averted: 3-Mile-Wide Asteroid Makes Earth Flyby

Wednesday, 12 Dec 2012 11:10 AM

By Michael Mullins

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While the vast majority of the Earth's population working, sleeping, and playing below oblivious to it, a 3-mile-wide asteroid was cruising past the earth Wednesday morning at a speed of about 20 miles per second.

At its closest, the behemoth asteroid known as 4179 Toutatis was about 4.3 million miles from our planet, but if it had collided with the Earth, scientists say the impact could have extinguished human civilization, just like the 6-mile-wide asteroid that may have destroyed the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

The passing of asteroid 4179 Toutatis came only one day after a much smaller asteroid, named 2012 XE54 and approximately 120 feet wide, came a lot closer. Tuesday morning it passed between the Earth and the moon’s orbit, missing us by a mere 140,000 miles.

The nearer-to-Earth asteroid, which was first discovered by astronomers on Sunday, could have caused massive damage if it impacted the earth’s surface. In 1908, 800 square miles of forest was flattened in Siberia when an object of similar size exploded above that part of Russia.

The 2012 XE54 asteroid will be returning in 2015, according to astronomers, after completing an orbit around the sun.

“A close analysis of the trajectory of this asteroid reveals that it will likely cross the Earth's shadow, causing a partial eclipse of the asteroid a few hours before reaching its minimum distance with the Earth,” said Pasquale Tricarico, a research scientist for the Planetary Science Institute.

“Asteroids eclipsing during an Earth flyby are relatively rare, with the first known case of asteroid 2008 TC3 which was totally eclipsed just one hour before entering Earth's atmosphere over Sudan in 2008, and asteroid 2012 KT42 experiencing both an eclipse and a transit during the same Earth flyby in 2012.”

To date, scientists have discovered approximately 9,000 near-Earth asteroids, but estimate that a million or more such space rocks exist in total. A significant amount of the near-Earth asteroids that come too close for comfort are at least 330 feet in width. Only 30 percent of such space rocks have yet to be identified by scientists.

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