On July 24, 2002, NASA published a press release which stated a 1.2 mile diameter asteroid, dubbed 2002 NT7, might collide with Earth on February 1, 2019. Within days, NASA readjusted its statement, issuing a new press release that rolled the impact date to 2060, or possibly never. The asteroid was the first object to receive a positive value on the Palermo scale, meaning it has real potential to strike the planet in the near future. NASA’s prompt backpedaling of their statement had many people more worried about whether the agency was telling the truth than the asteroid threat itself.(1,4,5)
“The limited number of observations available do not allow its trajectory to be tightly constrained and the object’s very uncertain future motion often allows a very low probability of an Earth impact at some future date. Just such a low probability impact has been identified for February 1, 2019 and a few subsequent dates,” warned the original press release said.(3)
Asteroid impact could take out humanity in an instant
Asteroids are celestial debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, a molecular cloud of interstellar gas collapsed in on itself. The collapse caused the gas to conglomerate into a star. The remaining material flattened out into a disk around the sun, condensing into planets, comets, and asteroids.
The Earth is pelted with pea size pieces of rock everyday. Every so often, a piece of rock is large enough to cause serious damage to the Earth. Asteroid 2002 NT7 was one of those threats.
The asteroid completes a single orbit around the sun every 837 days. It travels along a tilted path somewhere between Mars and Earth’s orbit. Estimates suggest that the asteroid would impact Earth at 28 km a second in 2019. If the asteroid were to collide with Earth, the results would be devastating. It would most likely plunge into the ocean, causing tidal waves to bombard the coast, stimulate volcanic activity, and throw dust into the atmosphere that would block sunlight.(2)
NASA’s press release suspiciously readjusted
If officials were to announce that a deadly asteroid was going collide with Earth in just a few years, it would trigger a wide-spread panic. This would give NASA good reason to withhold this information from the public. The public, therefore, is in a catch-22 in regards to NASA’s statement about 2002 NT7. On the one hand, if NASA is telling the truth, then they had every reason to readjust the press release. On the other hand, if the asteroid really is going to strike Earth in 2019, then NASA would have just as much reason to readjust the press release. Both hypotheses explain NASA’s behavior, yet only once can be the case.
Nor does NASA necessarily know how to prevent an asteroid from striking the planet. One idea is to blast the asteroid out of the sky with missiles. While it is easy to blow an asteroid to pieces, it isn’t easy to predict where the remaining pieces would fall. The fragments could still pelt Earth from different angles. Instead of striking once place, as a single chunk of rock would, the remaining debris would strike multiple location across the globe.
The most promising way to stop an asteroid in its path it to deflect it. Engineers could send a space ship in near proximity to the asteroid. The spaceship’s gravitational pull could tug at the asteroid, changing its orbital path away form the Earth. The deflection method isn’t bullet proof, however. A wrong tug could simply cause the asteroid to follow an alternative trajectory towards Earth.
NASA has claimed that the calculations for 2002 NT7 were preliminary, and that the asteroid isn’t likely to strike the Earth in 2019. Equally uncertain is whether NASA’s second press release regarding the asteroid was sincere or devious. Only time will tell.
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