It has happened again, noise and murmurings online and in some media outlets about an asteroid that is going to smash into Earth on 1 February 2019 and end all life as we know it. For now, it is simply not going to happen. I have lost track of how many asteroid stories have hit the news with journalists scrapping around for their ‘go to story’ that it will wipe out life as we know it.
The reality of asteroid discovery and observation is quite different. Imagine watching a tennis match and you take a picture. If your camera snapped off a high speed shot you may well have frozen the motion of the tennis ball in mid air. Studying the picture later would tell you exactly where the tennis ball was but you would not be able to tell where it was going. This is akin to the initial discovery observation of an asteroid, you know where it is, but not really too sure where it is going.
If on the other hand your picture was shot at a slower speed then the tennis ball is more likely to be blurred which will give away its speed and direction. In a similar way, it takes astronomers time (like a long exposure of a moving ball) and plenty of observations to construct an orbit for a new asteroid. Rely on the high speed shot only and your guess is as good as mine where the tennis ball is going to go but study it over time and you can build up an accurate picture of its trajectory.
The moral to this story is simple…..do not pay any attention to what I like to call ‘knee jerk journalism’ and wait. Keep an eye on the many reputable scientific websites like JPLs Centre for Near Earth Studies which will keep you up to date with the facts and not sensationalism. You will be pleased to hear that there are a number of research projects underway to identify ways to deflect an incoming asteroid but for now, they are just there to come up with a plan. I am sure there will come a day in the future where an asteroid will be discovered that does pose a significant threat but for now, as things stand, there is no risk from any asteroid striking Earth and wiping out life as we know it.