CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A celestial star-killer is expected to make a close approach to our terrestrial home soon. An asteroid with a diameter of over 1,000 feet, slightly larger than the Bank of America Corporate Center in Uptown, is being tracked by NASA as a “Near-Earth Object” or NEO. The asteroid, affectionately known as 2002 NN4, is traveling at speeds upwards of 20,000 mph and will pass within roughly three million miles of Earth this Saturday. For reference, the Moon is 238,900 miles from Earth, which is about 13 times closer than 2002 NN4’s closest approach.
While three million miles is certainly a safe distance, and it should be noted that this asteroid will pass by Earth without incident, it is an unsettling reminder of how devastating asteroid impacts can be and how helpless us Earthlings are to stop them. According to Florida Gulf Coast University physics professor Derek Buzasi, 2002 NN4 is larger than 90% of known asteroids in our solar system. He says “catastrophic” damage can be expected if an asteroid of this magnitude were to directly impact the Blue Planet. The asteroid that is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Chicxulub Impactor, was approximately 6-50 miles across.
You may remember the asteroid that made it into Earth’s atmosphere and exploded over Russia back in 2013. That space rock, known as the Chelyabinsk meteor, was about 60 feet in diameter, or the size of two buses laid out end-to-end. While no deaths occurred as a result of the explosion, nearly 1,500 people were injured by the shockwave and over $30 million in damage was done to buildings, cars, and other properties in the area.
Somewhere between 500-1,000 meteorites reach Earth’s surface before burning up on any given year, but they seldom are noticed or even show up on radar to be recovered by scientists. The Chelyabinsk meteor is thought to be the largest space rock to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere since 1908. While an “Armageddon”-sized asteroid is not expected to hit the planet we call home anytime soon, physicists, engineers, and astronomers alike are always planning ahead. The 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference was held to discuss how humans would respond to an asteroid big enough to destroy a major metropolitan area. Dr. Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science, says that somehow changing the speed of an asteroid approaching Earth is likely the most feasible option. Despite so many unknowns on what exactly is out in our solar system and when the next space strike is coming, Dr. Glaze says it shouldn’t keep us up at night.