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Headling for a collision?

Published March 17. 2012 09:01AM

Periodically over the past several years, amateur astronomers have brought to the public's attention the possibility of a collision between Earth and asteroids or comets, but in all of those cases such a collision has never occurred. The last significant event in recent history that has caused significant damage over land probably is Tunguska in 1907 when a meteor may have leveled a large area of Siberia creating a violent explosion. We discussed this mysterious explosion several years ago in this column.

Last week I came across a video posted by a conspiracy theorist who was perusing NASA's Near Earth Object Program. This is a database of asteroids and meteors that is cataloged by year and index number. One object named "2012 DA14" has been singled out by this amateur sleuth as an item of interest because when its trajectory is examined over the course of the next year and interesting event occurs next February.

Along with the chart of indexed objects, there is a simulation program or applet in computer lingo that shows a layout of the inner solar system with the sun in the center of course and the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars as well as the object selected by the user. In addition to the orbs representing the planets and the object there are lines that show the paths for the orbits. Buttons and scroll bars allow one to cycle through the days and months so you can observe how the heavenly bodies interact and move in and around the near earth object and another scroll bar moves the perspective of the solar system so you can view it from different perspectives or planes of views. You can look down on it or across it or up into it if you prefer.

With that understanding of how this little simulation works, I selected this asteroid 2012 DA14 that this amateur astronomer was discussing and began observing the simulation. It showed the distance of this object from Earth in astronomical units. An astronomical unit is the distance from the earth to the sun roughly 93 million miles. This is important to keep in mind later.

As one runs the simulation and it nears February 16, 2013 an interesting event happens. The astronomical unit nears zero indicating the asteroid gets quite close to Earth. One thing to keep in mind as well is this asteroid is only 150 feet across. Not very large but if it were to penetrate our atmosphere it would explode with the force of a thermonuclear bomb. On February 16, 2013, a curious thing happens. The astronomical unit spikes a negative number before becoming positive again on the next day. What does this mean?

The amateur astronomer interprets this with dire circumstances. His belief is this is the day that the asteroid collides with the planet and NASA is not revealing this on purpose. How else could the number be a negative measurement of the object in relation to our Earth? I have thought about this myself and a few things occur to me that could explain why the negative number does not necessarily mean the end of our existence.

First, the simplest explanation is that there is a degree of mathematical error in the simulation itself simply because while we can approximate how objects may behave in space based on physics there could be some variables that create variation that are random and could affect its path that we may not predict in the next eleven months. Second, is it possible that while the simulation is describing the object's movement in general terms it may not be the object's exact position in the solar system over eleven months from now in the solar system? After all, the object's position on February 16, 2013 is supposed to be a minute fraction negative thirteen hundred thousandths of an astronomical unit away from the earth. This seems small but it is really 12,680 miles. If we were talking about a flat surface then there would be no choice but for the asteroid to collide with the planet but in a three dimensional space that 12,680 miles provides a buffer for the rock to safely pass by the planet leaving both unscathed.

Obviously there is always the possibility the asteroid could be on the same trajectory as the planet but as one watches the simulation you can observe that the object apparently is not currently on the same path so it would pass by the planet next year missing it altogether.

So while there is always the possibility that on February 16, 2013 somewhere on planet Earth the sky will explode with an asteroid according to a You Tube astronomer, I'm more inclined to believe in mathematics and physics that a three dimensional math problem will carry asteroid 2012 DA14 safely past us.

If you would like to view the video or explore the Near Earth Object Program in more detail you can find links to it at

Til next time…

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