If you are reading this column, then Don Yeomans was correct.
Yeomans, a senior research scientist at NASA, last week assured the public that a sizeable asteroid heading our way would not collide with our home planet Earth or our moon.
Thank goodness, he was right.
But, boy, it was a close one! In fact, the asteroid in question, known as Asteroid 2005 YU 55, whizzed by at a distance almost too close for comfort. At only 200,000 miles away (closer than the moon), it was the nearest a tracked object of its magnitude has ever come to earth.
Only sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere that were prepared with a telescope could have seen the close encounter last Tuesday at about 6:28 p.m., since it could not be observed with the naked eye. Scientists were hoping that the up-close-and-personal flyby would yield information about the asteroid’s chemical composition and surface features, though they already know from other observations that this heavenly body is dark in color and composed of carbon-based materials and silicate rock.
The odds are good that we will be safe from a collision with asteroid YU 55 for another hundred years. There is only a one in 10 million chance of its hitting the earth in the next century during another go-around. Those are better odds than winning the Megabucks lottery!
However, if the asteroid did hit us, it would be a really big bang. The collision would equal the explosion of several thousand megatons of TNT, making it a speeding ball of rock that packs a wallop!
Our next get-together with this particular asteroid is estimated to occur around 2041, but don’t think that we are free and clear from others. Another asteroid, known as 2001 UN 5, will pass within 150,000 miles of the earth in 2028.
Asteroids are simply rocks and ice that orbit around our sun. Most are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. They are also called minor planets or planetoids and can vary in size. The smallest is just a dust particle, while the largest, called Ceres, is 933 kilometer, or 580 miles. Ceres, itself, accounts for a third of the total mass of all asteroids, and makes poor 2005 YU 55 look small and insignificant.
No matter how inconsequential last Tuesday’s asteroid passing was, give it and other asteroids their due. While I know that they are a force to be reckoned with, Dave Barry found his signature humor in their existence and destructive power. He asked, “What happens if a big asteroid hits Earth? Judging from realistic simulations involving a sledge hammer and a common laboratory frog, we can assume it will be pretty bad.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.