earth

University Astronomer on the half-mile long asteroid orbiting the Earth

An asteroid taller than most skyscrapers is due to rocket past the Earth on 29 November, prompting University of Hull Astronomer, Professor Brad Gibson, to discuss the likelihood of a collision with Earth.

Professor Gibson, Director of the E.A at the Milne Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Hull, described astronaomers’ efforts to track these enormous objects travelling throughout space, and said that they were extremely confident the asteroid would not make contact with our planet.

He explained how their extraordinary size – at over 800m long – is what makes them far easier to track, with more light from the sun being reflected off them, and therefore increasing astronomers’ confidence that they can accurately predict the flight path of the asteroid.

The asteroid in question – named Asteroid 2000 WO107 – will be the largest one of its size to come within a million miles of the Earth.

Professor Gibson said: “While this seems like a lot, it’s actually a very small distance when you compare it to the staggeringly vast size of the solar system.”

“It does, however, raise questions over how it would impact the Earth were a collision to occur. Thankfully, it is nowhere near as big as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but it would be large enough to destroy a region roughly the size of Europe.”

To put its size into context, the asteroid that caused the 1908 Tunguska Event in Siberia – in which 830 square miles of forest were flattened – was only one tenth the size of Asteroid 2000 WO107.

There are thousands of asteroids currently being tracked by astronomers, with current estimates over 800,000. The sizes of them vary dramatically, as does their proximity to Earth.

In as recently as the 2020 US election period, a much smaller asteroid – roughly two metres across – grazed the atmosphere on 2 November. Professor Gibson said: “Obviously we wouldn’t refer to this smaller kind of asteroid as a ‘species-killer’, but it would cause quite spectacular localised damage were it to make impact here on Earth.”

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the asteroid as it hurtles past on Sunday, Professor Gibson warned that it would be completely invisible to the naked eye, and would require a minimum 8-inch telescope on a clear night to have a chance of spotting it.

“There is profound excitement to be felt from asteroids, as each rocky fragment comes from the very beginning of our Solar System.”

“They are essentially pristine fossils from the creation of the solar system. When you break into one and examine the various chemical elements and isotopes within it, you get an instantaneous snapshot of what our solar system looked like five billion years ago.”

The University of Hull is fortunate enough to be in possession of a variety of these special ‘moon rocks’. As part of an immersive 3D experience designed to explore the history of the moon, Students can see two fragments, an inch in diameter, and have the chance to hold a real piece of the moon.

In addition, they also purchased a fragment of the Chelyabinsk Meteor, which in 2013 became the largest object to have entered the Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska Event.

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