Asteroid to miss Earth January 29

Contributed by
Jan 6, 2008
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This is interesting: an asteroid named 2007 TU24 will pass roughly 560,000 kilometers (330,000 miles) from the Earth on January 29, 2008. That's close enough to be interesting, but far enough not to worry about it. Funny coincidence: that's almost the same time 2007 WD5 will pass very close to Mars. The odds of a Mars impact are still not zero, but there is no chance at all of TU24 hitting us.

I don't usually track such news, but I actually found out about this at Digg.com, where some folks were digging up a misleading video about the asteroid. The video wasn't hugely popular, but it's had a few thousand viewings which isn't bad. But I have some beefs with it, and I think they point to some misconceptions people have about asteroids.

First, though, the video is a bait-and-switch to talk about how Ron Paul isn't getting press. OK, feh. My thoughts on Paul are pretty clear, and I've seen little to change my mind.

But the science too is misleading. The first thing the video author shows is the well-known asteroid Ida, claiming it's TU24, which is incorrect.

Then he shows how close it will pass, with a grossly misleading graphic of the Earth and Moon sitting right next to each other, making it look like this asteroid will just barely miss us. Make no mistake: this is a pretty close pass for an asteroid, but it has no chance at all of hitting us, so it's no big deal. Looking at the list of recent and upcoming close approaches by asteroids, you can see this one is on the nearest for a while, but there are many other near misses... stress the word "miss".

In the description, he also says

It will be 1.37 Lunar Distances from earth on January 29, 2008. Let's hope they're right. Gauging trajectory on something coming right at you isn't easy.

Nope, it's not heading right for us. It's heading to a point in space where the Earth will be on January 29. Actually, it's headed to a point in space more than half a million kilometers from where the Earth will be at that time. Either way, that spot in space is currently more than 60 million kilometers (40 million miles) away from us right now; a fair ways off. So actually, getting the orbit is just a matter of getting good observations, like it usually is.

Asteroids are a real threat, and need to be taken seriously. This video -- and they way I see the media treat the threat in general -- in my opinion, make matters somewhat worse. Perhaps I'm hammering this particular video a little hard, but to me it represents a whole class of misleading coverage of asteroids. And c'mon, if you want to make a point, just make it. (Mis)Using astronomy this way isn't helping any.