Astronomers on the hunt for modestly sized asteroids that could vaporise a city or bulkier beasts that could sterilise Earth’s surface have spotted a new potential threat. But there’s no immediate need to worry — it’ll be many generations until it may pose a danger to our planet.
Detecting uncharted space rocks relies on spying sunlight glinting off their surfaces. But some asteroids occupy corners of the sky in which the sun’s glare smothers them, and, like embers flitting in front of a thermonuclear bonfire, they fade from view.
Last year, in the hope of finding asteroids cloaked by excessive sunlight, an international team of astronomers co-opted a camera primarily designed to investigate the universe’s notoriously elusive dark energy. In an announcement recently based on a survey first published in September in The Astronomical Journal, the researchers announced the discovery of three new light-drowned projectiles.
One of them, 2022 AP7, is roughly 1 mile long, and its orbit crosses Earth’s path around the sun, getting as near as 4.4 million miles to Earth itself. That makes 2022 AP7 “the largest potentially hazardous asteroid found in the last eight years or so,” said Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, and an author of the study.
After the asteroid was discovered in January, additional observatories studied its motion and other astronomers retrospectively identified it in older images. This data set made it clear that it won’t be paying Earth a visit during the next century and perhaps far longer.
And if, in the unluckiest of timelines, 2022 AP7 ultimately impacts Earth?
“This is what we call a planet killer,” Sheppard said. “If this one hits the Earth, it would cause planetwide destruction. It would be very bad for life as we know it.”
But as we are safe for many generations, this asteroid’s orbit is not its most noteworthy feature. Its existence suggests that other elephantine asteroids, veiled by the sun’s glare, remain disconcertingly undiscovered.
Today, astronomers looking for potentially hazardous asteroids — those that get at least as close as 4.6 million miles to Earth and are too chunky to be incinerated without incident by our atmosphere — focus on finding rocks around 460 feet across. Such threats have motivated Nasa and other space agencies to develop planetary defence missions like DART, the spacecraft that successfully adjusted the orbit of a small, nonthreatening asteroid in September. — NYT