Earth remains safe for now — but what about next asteroid?

It is believed to be a coincidence that a large asteroid came so close to Earth at the same time a meteoroid flamed into the atmosphere over Russia.
Feb 15, 2013


Although the probability of a meteorite crashing in their backyards shouldn’t keep ordinary people up at night, scientists who study such matters are worried.The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky Friday startled scientists worldwide with its audacity, even as it triggered a window- and roof-rattling shockwave that injured more than 1,000 people in the city of Chelyabinsk.

Astronomers on Friday had their eyes skyward on a separate object, the much larger asteroid known as 2012 DA14. It was coincidence that it came so close to Earth at the same time a meteoroid flamed into the atmosphere over Russia’s Ural Mountains, NASA scientists said.

Still, scientists are paying attention to the paths of future near-Earth objects. One nonprofit space research foundation plans an infrared telescope that will be able to detect more meteorites that have potential to inflict damage on world cities.

“This is public safety. We’re doing this because we believe it needs to be done,” said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the chairman emeritus of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroids. Its name comes from the children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. B612 is the asteroid home cared for by the Little Prince.

There is no surefire system to scan the skies for threatening asteroids, particularly ones that came in at the angle of the meteor over Russia. So in the near future, the best hope is better monitoring of the meteorites that, typically, orbit in a belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Science also has few options for knocking incoming asteroids off course, which was part of the early work done by the B612 Foundation. Scientists are researching how to avoid a major asteroid impact, but they have nothing workable yet.

Scientists, led by NASA, track thousands of such near-Earth objects. They’re only a fraction of the asteroids in the solar system, however. There are about 500,000 near-Earth asteroids the size of 2012 DA14. Of those, less than 1 percent have been discovered, NASA said.

Until 20 years ago, there was even less ability to track them — and Asteroid 2012 DA14 itself was discovered by amateur astronomers at the La Sagra Sky Survey operated by the Astronomical Observatory of Mallorca in Spain.

The gaps in knowledge are precisely why B612 was founded, Schweickart said. They have plans to deploy in 2018 an infrared space telescope; its purpose will be to discover asteroids that could do serious damage to Earth.

Their telescope still would be unable to capture asteroids the size of the one that entered the atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Schweickart said. But it will capture many more of those the size of Asteroid 2012 DA14.

“The purpose is to discover most — we’re not going to get all — of the asteroids that are out there,” Schweickart said. “All of them are much bigger than the one that hit Russia this morning. I’m not counting things that break glass, I’m talking about things that will wipe out cities or more.”

There’s little appetite in Congress right now to increase spending, but Friday’s double-whammy may have changed some minds.

“As the world leader in space exploration, America has made great progress for mankind,” the chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement. “But our work is not done. We should continue to study, research and explore space to better understand our universe and better protect our planet.”

It’s also a matter of national security, said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a physicist and the former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

He cited congressional testimony from 2002, when a meteor exploded over the Mediterranean at a time of particularly tense relations between India and Pakistan. If the meteor had exploded over India or Pakistan, one military leader warned, it might have been misidentified as a nuclear attack.

“There should be some tens of millions in annual funding in order to meet the goal that Congress has set, which is to follow anything of significance in the asteroid/meteor category,” Holt said. “And we’re not doing anything close to that.”

And yet, Smith said in his statement, “Fifty years ago, we would have had no way of seeing an asteroid like this coming.”

Astronomers were giddy Friday as NASA broadcast live from one of the best space-viewing points in the world, the Gingin Observatory near Perth, Australia.

“What an exciting day. It’s like a shooting gallery,” said Paul Chodas of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “We have two rare events of near-objects approaching the Earth on the same day.”

The two objects had different trajectories, and the asteroid monitored worldwide on Friday was much larger — about the length of half a football field.

The asteroid was the closest known — or accurately predicted — object of its size to fly by Earth. Unlike the Russian meteor, scientists were aware of it and accurately predicted that it would come closer than some weather and communication satellites but leave them unharmed. Those satellites orbit about 23,000 miles up; the meteorite came within about 17,000 miles from Earth.

There was never a risk the large asteroid would collide with Earth, but if one of its size were to hit here, “its crater would be larger than Monaco,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the “StarTalk” radio program, said Friday on Twitter.

Smaller meteorites crash to Earth daily — they can be seen as “shooting stars.” But most aren’t found, said Marc Fries, a research associate at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Many fall into the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the Earth. Or they enter the atmosphere in remote places where they go unseen.

Few are as dramatic or as big as the one caught on video in Russia. Thanks to the dashboard-mounted cameras that many Russians use to deter police corruption, the asteroid’s meteoric path was filmed from cars.


By Erika Bolstad - McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) (James Rosen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

©2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at

Distributed by MCT Information Services



Anyone ever think maybe the father country has the technology thanks to you to precisely bust a chip off on its journey earth bound and guess a landing spot


On its journey earth bound? Dosent make sense but whatever


I get it, slimwhite56. You'll post a comment that doesn't make sense, then instead of using the edit feature, you'll post another one that doesn't make sense and "almost try" to excuse the first one.

At the very least, you are trying to excuse yourself. Keep on goin'. You and your partner mikeylikesit are goin' to DisneyLand once ya get it together!

And hey, on the way, pick up Brock Lee and hor mone. I heard they are missing you.


im far too busy at the bath house to be going to disneyland..

hit the road jack

Whats the difference,they aren't going to tell you if one is coming at us anyway.


The world would know. Many objects are first discovered by amateur astronomers.

Now, the Fed says that there is no inflation. THAT I believe. :)

hit the road jack

You are right,the last meteor that came somewhat close was spotted by an amateur,but when the feds found out they didn't tell anyone till it had passed.


My point: There are many more sources of info than the Feds.

The asteroid was discovered by an observatory in Spain - "word" gets out.

G-20: No currency manipulation (except for Japan). Yea, THAT I believe. :)

Cliff Cannon

@ Contango: Every time I read about the G-20 or central banks in general. I am never sure if I should cry,be thankful or drink till I forget. What a mess they have created ( putting it mildly)

Seen a documentary last night at the video store, I think it is called " An inside job" about the Sept. 2008 world wide economic melt down. ( Only cost the world 20 TRILLION ) Which was brought on by currency manipulation,Wall st. theft and Federal gov't stupidity.

I thought it would be interesting. My brown eyed bride wanted funny,not interesting. Geuss who won ?


@ Cliff Cannon:

2008? IMO, NOTHING has changed, it's just been "papered" over.

IMO, "Too Big To Fail" is an interesting movie about the early days of the crisis.

The USD has lost about 33% of it's value since mid-2001 - but "officially" there is no inflation.

Just look at the money supply (M2) and tell me that this can continue to go into infinity.

Barron's cover this wk: "Follow me; We Can Be Like Greece"

On topic: Yrs. ago I saw a Russian booster re-enter the atmosphere. Couldn't figure out quite what it was until I read about it.

It had a long tail with flaming pieces falling off it. Pretty cool!

Cliff Cannon

@ Contango : Me thinks,the Russian booster re-entering the atmosphere, would be far more interesting,no doubt cooler than reading the " M-20 " report from this weekend.

M2 ( 'money suppy ' ) is now a weird economic indicator. When we were young men it was like a meteror to Wall st.,that meant everything. Now it means 'nothing'. Yet our American money looks like monopoly money and the value of our dollar has fallen 33 %. So who's kidding who ? :)

" We can be like Greece " ? America's economy,like Greece's ?
Sad, isn't it ?


The government will feed the dumb Americans anything to keep their minds off the real problems this country is facing!

Brock Lee

is this bushs falt to


unless someone has a really big death ray gun to blast it to smithereens.. there's not much we can do about the next one, now is there?

Anyway with all the droughts and some of the water drying up, I think, we're pretty much screwed - already.


...a David Copperfield type could rake in millions making it disappear...