There's an asteroid on its way toward Earth, and we're going to cross paths with it in the next 48 hours. There's no need yet to strap Bruce Willis into a spacesuit and pull Aerosmith out of cold storage, though; it's not going to hit us. But what if... just what if that asteroid were to strike Earth?
Some time Sunday afternoon, Asteroid 2014 RC will make a close approach to Earth, zooming by at about 22,000 or 25,000 miles above New Zealand. It's one of the closest calls we've had with one of these space rocks in quite a while, about one-tenth the distance from the Earth to the moon. The only time we've come closer was with a 2013 asteroid, DA14, which buzzed us at a distance of just 17,500 miles.
The asteroid will be so close, says the Washington Post, that observers on Earth will be able to see it briefly, provided they've got access to a small telescope.
And we almost didn't see it coming.
The asteroid didn't pop up until this past Sunday, just a week before it will pass us. Since Asteroid 2014 RC is just 60 feet in diameter, it's a bit harder to spot until it's almost upon us.
We're pretty busy trying to figure out what would happen if one of the Earth-killers like you'd see in Deep Impact or Armageddon – you know: "an asteroid the size of Texas" – were to hurtle our way, but smaller asteroids like 2014 RC could also do quite a bit of damage were they to collide with our little blue marble.
Like we said, the asteroid that will miss Earth on Sunday is about 60 feet in diameter. Not an extinction-level event, no, but some estimates put the Chelyabinsk meteor at roughly the same size. That's the meteor that exploded over Russia last year, if you didn't recall. Aside from flooding the internet with dashcam videos, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded with enough force to register a 2.7 on seismographs in the area. The meteor also produced a shockwave that shattered windows for miles around, damaging 7,200 buildings in six cities and injuring some 1,500 people.
The damage caused by such an object is dependent on its mass, composition, and whether or not it strikes the Earth directly. If Sunday's asteroid were a bit bigger, the damage could be even greater than what we saw in Russia last February.
How much greater? About 106 years ago, a 300-foot asteroid exploded over the Tunguska River in Siberia – or, at least, that's what they tell us exploded over Tunguska. The definitely-not-caused-by-aliens-or-Tesla explosion was more powerful, according to the Washington Post, than even thermonuclear hydrogen bombs that mankind has set off. It flattened thousands of square miles of territory.
Impacts on this scale would be absolutely devastating to a local area, perhaps causing thousands or hundreds of thousands of casualties, depending where on Earth the asteroid struck. Still, mankind and life on Earth would endure. Once we get up to the kilometer-sized asteroids, though, we're in a bit of trouble. "Global catastrophe" is the term that comes to mind when we reach asteroids of that scale, and an asteroid about 10 kilometers wide is what is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.
Still, asteroid hits of that sort are incredibly rare, happening once every few million years. The smaller ones, though, like the asteroid that will buzz Earth on Sunday, strike about once every few hundred years. So maybe the Russian dashboard cam asteroid was our big warning for this century. In any case, keep your eyes skyward, because you don't want to miss a thing.
[Lead image via awesome DeviantArtist ShikharSrivastava.]