NASA is ruling out the possibility of an asteroid striking Earth in 2040, saying newly released data places the chances of impact at less more than one in 500.
The U.S. space agency announced the findings Friday, saying additional research by astronomers in Hawaii shows the asteroid will miss Earth by nearly half-a-million miles.
“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,” NASA said in a statement released to CNN on Friday. “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.”
According to those results, scientists say the asteroid will miss the Earth by 890,000 kilometers, or 553,000 miles — a near miss in galactic terms. Previous research has placed the odds of an impact upwards of one in sixty, although preliminary research earlier this year lowered the odds to one in 500.
The announcement should bring some relief to the astronomy community. The asteroid, which NASA dubbed ‘2011 AG5,’ is 460 feet in diameter and would have carried the force of several atomic bombs. If this object were to collide with the Earth it would have released about 100 megatons of energy, several thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs that ended World-War II, according to NASA. Statistically, a body of this size could impact the Earth on average every 10,000 years.
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 largely been eliminated.
Astronomers working with the University of Hawaii at Manoa managed to snap a few images of the asteroid in early October. The new set of observations were obtained by the Gemini 8-meter telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which allowed for the most detailed analysis of the asteroid to date.
Friday’s announcement was not entirely unexpected. Observations in May 2012 presented astronomers with data that showed the asteroid’s path largely outside of the window of possible impact. However, the asteroid’s size and rotation left astronomers pondering the possibility of an impact, simply due to the inability to accurately map its trajectory.
“As it turns out, the asteroid is highly variable in brightness, which is probably why we were unable to make definitive observations on the smaller telescope,” said the Hawaii astronomers.
IfA astronomers David Tholen, Richard Wainscoat, Marco Micheli, and Garrett Elliott conducted the original observations and analysis of the data. Further analysis was performed at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The updated trajectory of 2011 AG5, based on the Gemini data, has a factor of 60 less uncertainty than the previous observations due in part to the increase in sampling points in the asteroid’s orbit. The original discovery was made from images obtained with the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona.