© Screenshot: www.nasaimages.org
Less than a month ago NASA announced that the Earth is in fact safe from the infamous asteroid, Apophis, which was expected to collide with our planet in 2036. It is now reported that the chances of impact are lower than one in a million. Despite that good news, it turns out that any celebrations might be a little premature. Two weeks ago Russian astronomers Andrey Oreshko and Timur Kryachko discovered yet another asteroid, with the catchy name of 2012 YQ1, which will, in all likelihood, crash into Earth, but not until 2106.
With the collision date quite so far ahead it seems that few of us will still be here to witness the apocalyptic event. However, as life expectancy is steadily increasing with the latest developments in medicine and biochemistry, it is quite probable that many of the Y2K generation will live to see the massive asteroid hitting the Earth with their own eyes.
It was yet another all-nighter for two Russian astronomers, Andrey Oreshko and Timur Kryachko, when their red eyes saw a previously unrecorded asteroid revealed by the lens of their remote-controlled telescope ‘Elena’, located in the Chilean Atacama desert. Having already found more than a dozen previously unknown asteroids, the astronomers were not particularly excited about their latest discovery. However, their ambivalence quickly gave way to anxiety when the two men studied the size and trajectory of the new-found 2012 YQ1; with a diameter of 230 meters and an orbital period of 1040 days, it soon became clear that the asteroid was highly likely to strike planet Earth. Using ‘Elena’, with its integrated CCD technology and 0.4 meter diameter primary mirror, Oreshko and Kryachko were able calculate the probable time of collision: January 2106. Given that ‘Elena’ is one of the most advanced telescopes in use today, the probability that the astronomers are mistaken is extremely low.
According to Mr Kryachko, if the asteroid’s course is not altered by a random collision with another celestial body or similarly unpredictable circumstance, in January 2106 the asteroid will pass through a gravitational keyhole bringing it as close as one and a half moon-distances to Earth, near enough for earth’s gravity to change the asteroid’s course and draw it even closer. Ultimately, YQ1 will hit Earth so hard that a global catastrophe will be unavoidable. The scientists estimate that the impact would equate to the energy released by approximately 25000 atomic bombs all going off at once. That puts YQ1 on par with the infamous Apophis which measures 270 meters in diameter and had been thought likely to strike Earth in 2036. According to NASA’s ‘virtual impactors’ directory, YQ1 is 17th of the most dangerous asteroids ever discovered.
What is particularly interesting about the discovery of YQ1 is the fact that the asteroid was found by a privately-owned telescope in the southern hemisphere which was being remotely controlled from an apartment in Moscow. This is a rather unusual event as the discovery of new asteroids has tended to be the privilege of NASA. With annual funding of around three billion dollars, the agency closely monitors thousands of celestial bodies and studies hundreds of potentially hazardous asteroids by analysing their trajectories and taking various measurements. Nonetheless, this time NASA’s network of robotic telescopes was beaten by the Russian-funded ‘Elena’ which was first to spot one of the most dangerous asteroids in the history of astronomy.
In Mr Oreshko’s opinion, this once again proves that while technology plays a significant role in space exploration, attention to detail and open-mindedness are, in the end, what count the most. The night Oreshko and Kryachko made their disturbing discovery they were actually busy taking pictures of galaxies and other celestial bodies and, were it nor for sharp eyes, YQ1 might have remained undiscovered for another decade.
At the moment, YQ1 stands as the 556,678th celestial body of its kind to be discovered by man. The very first known asteroid was identified just over two centuries ago by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi. The scientist was conducting research at the Palermo Astronomical Observatory when he saw an unknown celestial body that overtook a comet. Piazzi subsequently learnt that the body was a dwarf planet which he called Ceres. As time has passed, planets of this type came to be known as ‘asteroids’, from the ancient Greek, meaning ‘like stars’.