Earth (nowhere near) destroyed by giant asteroid!

Earth (nowhere near) destroyed by giant asteroid!

Earth (nowhere near) destroyed by giant asteroid!

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 3 2006 9:21 PM

Earth (nowhere near) destroyed by giant asteroid!

Note: the Shuttle is due to launch Tuesday July 4 at 11:38 a.m. Pacific time, despite foam worries. I will blog here when I learn more. Now back to your regularly scheduled doomsday hyperbole.

Perhaps you've heard of asteroid 2004 XP 14. It's something like 600-800 meters wide, and on the evening of July 2/3 it passed the Earth at a distance of roughly 430,000 km (270,000 miles), slightly more distant than the Moon. I would have blogged about it earlier, but honestly, I forgot. As near-Earth asteroids go this really is pretty close in astronomical terms, but still, 430,000 kilometers is far. And it only got as bright as 11th magnitude, which is 1/100th as bright as you can see with the unaided eye; you'd need a good 'scope and some real stargazing experience to have been able to see this rock at all.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Still, there's a lot of astronomical interest in this asteroid because it's well-placed for radar observations, and astronomers can use those to map out the three-dimensional structure of the asteroid, as well as get phenomenally good distance measurements. I haven't heard how those went, but when I do I'll write about it.

The thing is, there were a few folks who heard about this rock and were a bit scared. I'm not surprised, since most people have a hard time grasping the distance scale in the solar system, and may not understand that something can be close in astronomical terms and still be pretty far away. I expected to see a lot of doomsday mongering with this rock, but I didn't see anything, which is another reason I forgot about it.

But then I happened to see a BBC web page about it. I took a frame grab of it:

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Look at the headline: "Asteroid set for close encounter", and beneath it: " A large asteroid is set to pass Earth in a close encounter which scientists say will pose no danger."

That's great that they would make sure that is up front and center, thus allaying any fears people might have of this. But then take a look at the illustration to the right. It shows an asteroid burning up over Earth, obviously about to impact! The caption says "Scientists keep a close eye on asteroids passing near Earth", which is true enough, but I rather wish they had used a different image. I wouldn't say it's really alarmist, but it's certainly a poor choice, especially given the stress in the article that XP14 passed 400,000 kilometers off. This isn't enough to chastise them about, but I think it's worth noting here.

However, ITV news posted this image on their news page about XP14:

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Nice huh? Their article is slightly more alarmist than the BBC, though they too do stress it won't hit. Joining the fray is an ABC video linked from a Yahoo!News article, with a caption that says we "narrowly" avoided an impact; again, though, the video itself makes it clear it was still a long way off in human terms.

The Huffington Post joined the fray too, posting a picture with this headline:

I left a comment there, too. I probably should have corrected the spelling as well! :-)

Anyway, if you see more dubious headlines or images, feel free to comment.