The giant space rock, which had a near miss with Earth, could come back and smash into the planet in the future, researchers have cautioned. Known as “Asteroid 2012 TC4,” the rock has been whizzing past Earth over the last few days in a historic flyby. Scientists, however, are now saying the asteroid’s orbit around the sun, along with the gravitational pull of the Earth, could put the asteroid on a collision course with Earth in the future.
The asteroid, which scientists say measures 30 meters in diameter, flew past Earth at a distance of approximately 27,300 miles – almost as low as where man-made satellites sit in orbit.
According to tracking models, though, the asteroid’s path will be altered by Earth’s gravity in the future, and after a few more flybys, its trajectory will be more clear and scientists will be able to figure out if the asteroid will, in fact, collide with Earth.
The next time 2012 TC4 passes at such a close distance will be in 2050, and at that point, the gravitational pull of Earth will affect the asteroid’s trajectory so the next time it swings around, in 2079, a collision could very well take place, as Rudiger Jehn of the European Space Agency confirmed in an email to AFP.
“We know today that it will also not hit the Earth in the year 2050, but the close flyby in 2050 might deflect the asteroid such that it could hit the Earth in the year 2079.”
The ESA says that, at present time, the chances the asteroid will hit Earth in 2079 are about one in 750.
Fortunately for Earth’s inhabitants, Asteroid 2012 TC4 is only a maximum of 30 meters; it is unlikely to be a threat to life on Earth. Scientists say that if an impact occurs, it is likely to be similar to the Chelyabinsk incident. That incident, which took place in 2013, saw a meteor explode above the Russian town after entering the Earth’s atmosphere, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring 1,500 people in the process.
Michael Kelley, program scientist and NASA Headquarters lead for the TC4 Observation Campaign, spoke of what scientists plan on doing in order to track the asteroid.
“Scientists have always appreciated knowing when an asteroid will make a close approach to and safely pass the Earth because they can make preparations to collect data to characterize and learn as much as possible about it.
“This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat.”
Space rocks as small as this one are usually the ones that pose the bigger risk, because they never seem to get spotted until they become a fireball in the sky on what turns out to be the day of impact. All the more reason to point more eyes and lenses toward the sky to find the 99 percent of asteroids in the solar system — believed to still be undiscovered — big enough to level a city.
[Featured Image by Igor Zh/Shutterstock]