asteroid_7

In the 16 years since the turn of the century no fewer than 3 asteroids (larger than 50 meters) have come within a cosmic whisker (< 384,400 km, the distance between the Earth and the Moon) of an apocalyptic collision with our planet. A collision with any of these 3 asteroids had the possibility of bringing about a global cataclysm if not a real threat of extinction. In honor of our upcoming game, Orbit Path, where one must navigate a comet safely through the orbits of nearby planets without collision, I’ve done some research to share with you the 3 near-misses the Earth has had with asteroids since 2000.

1.) June 14 2002 – Size: 80 meters, Distance: 120,000 km

Back on June 14, 2002, while Nelly sat atop the Billboard charts and the Lakers cruised to another NBA championship an asteroid came within a hair of really heating things up on Earth. The 80-meter asteroid named 2002 MN nearly slammed into the Earth having only missed us by less than half the distance between the Earth to the Moon! While 120,000 km might sound like a comfortable margin down here on Earth, on the cosmic scale it’s a bullet graze. By comparison, 2002 MN was roughly similar in size and composition as the object that leveled 800 square miles of Siberian forest in 1908. Had 2002 MN entered our atmosphere It’s likely that it would have exploded with the force of a 10-15 megaton nuclear weapon. (easily enough energy to put the kibosh on New York City)

Effects of 15 megaton atomic bomb on New York
Estimated blast radius of a 15-megaton atomic weapon detonated over NYC. (courtesy of Nukemap.com)

2.) November 8, 2011 – Size: 360 meters, Distance: 324,900 km

The Earth had its next near miss in November 2011 as the terrifyingly large 2005 YU55 asteroid passed between the Earth and the Moon at a distance of 324,900 km. At 360 meters across the collision of 2005 YU55 would have been nothing short of an extinction level event. On the bright side astronomers had spotted the rock coming at us back in 2005 and determined that the chance of collision was slim. Had astronomers predicted a collision humanity would have had 6 years to figure out what to do in the face of our impending doom (might there’ve been enough time to elect Morgan Freeman President and put skis on the Space Shuttle?)

Trajectory of Asteroid YU55 through Earth's Orbit
Trajectory of asteroid 2005 YU55 compared with the orbits of Earth and the Moon (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

3.) December 3, 2011 – Size: 100 meters, Distance: 340,000 km

2011 might be the year we got Bin Laden, but it’s also when the Universe almost got us. On December 3, 2011, just a month after 2005 Yu55’s close encounter with Earth, a second asteroid, 2011 XC2, crept up on us and took the world by surprise as it zoomed past the Earth at 340,000 km. While we had 6 years to watch to 2005 Yu55 fly past us, our first hint of this asteroid came only 3 days after it had passed by us!

Friends, the cosmos is a dangerous place. There are a seemingly infinite number of assorted rocks, ice balls and other galactic projectiles shooting by near the Earth. Many of them end up striking the Earth, but luckily for us they’ve been small and have burned up in our atmosphere. However, it only takes a single rock large enough to survive entry into the atmosphere for humanity’s time on Earth to come to a violent and sudden stop.

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Small asteroids that have disintegrated in the Earth's atmosphere (1994-2013)

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