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Good news: NASA says asteroid thought to previously have a chance to hit earth will miss


This news story was published on December 25, 2012.
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The position data obtained for near-Earth asteroid 2011 AG5 in October 2012 was used to update its orbit and dramatically reduce its future orbital uncertainties in February 2040.

NASA scientists have announced that new observations of 2011 AG5 show that this asteroid, once thought to have a worrisome potential to threaten Earth, no longer poses a significant risk of impact. The orbital uncertainties of the 140m diameter near-Earth asteroid had previously allowed a 0.2% chance of collision in Feb. 2040, leading to a call for more observations to better constrain the asteroid’s future course.

Answering the call, University of Hawaii astronomers Dave Tholen, Richard Wainscoat and Marco Micheli used the Gemini 8-meter telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii to successfully recover and observe the small and very faint asteroid on October 20, 21 and 27, 2012. In addition to improving our knowledge of the orbit, the Gemini observations also suggest the asteroid varies in brightness as it rotates and therefore may be elongated. Gemini is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). In addition to the Gemini measurements, Tholen, Micheli and Garrett Elliott obtained less conclusive observations on October 9 & 10 with the University of Hawaii 2.2-meter telescope, also situated on the summit of Mauna Kea. After extensive astrometric analysis by the team in Hawaii, all observations were then sent to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

An analysis of the new data conducted by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shows that the risk of collision in 2040 has been eliminated. The updated trajectory of 2011 AG5 is not significantly different, but the new observations have reduced the orbit uncertainties by more than a factor of 60, meaning that the Earth’s position in February 2040 no longer falls within the range of possible future paths for the asteroid. With the updated orbit, the asteroid will pass no closer than 890,000 km (over twice the distance to the moon) in Feb. 2040, the epoch of the prior potential collision.

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