Good News, Everyone: Asteroid 2013 TV135 No Longer a Threat

The entire universe in blog form
Nov. 7 2013 8:00 AM

Good News, Everyone: Asteroid 2013 TV135 No Longer a Threat

near Earth asteroid
Not this time.

Photo credits: Earth: ESA/Rosetta; asteroid Mathilde: NASA/NEAR; composite by Phil Plait

After writing about small impacts being more common than we previously thought, I have some good news: The chance of an impact from the newly-discovered asteroid 2013 TV135 have dropped to essentially zero.

Yay! But this is hardly surprising.

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This rock was discovered in October 2013 by astronomers at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, and was quickly determined to have an orbit that might bring it uncomfortably close to Earth in 2032. However, that was based on a small number of observations, making it difficult to make a prediction of its precise location so far in the future. As we got more observations, I noted, the chance of an impact was likely to drop to zero — after actually increasing temporarily.

And that’s exactly what’s happened. The initial 1 in 63,000 chance of impact, calculated using those first few observations, went up as high as 1 in 10,000 after a few more. But now, with well over 600 observations spanning three weeks of time, the chance of an impact has dropped to about 1 in 28 million. In other words, there is a 99.999996% chance it will safely glide on past the Earth in 2032. Once the chance drops like this, it usually stays pretty low. Of course, astronomers will continue to observe this asteroid, because honestly that’s what astronomers do. It's still an interesting object, worth studying.

[UPDATE (Nov. 7, 2013 at 16:00 UTC): I just learned from JPL engineer Ron Baalke that since I wrote this post last night, the chance of an impact has dropped even more, to 1 in — get this — 169 million. Ha! That's a 99.9999994% chance of a miss. I'd bet quite a bit of money on a safe pass.]

three new asteroids
The orbits of the newly discovered asteroids (yellow) compared to the Earth (blue) and the positions of many main belt asteroids (red dots) on Nov. 5, 2013.

Illustration by NASA / JPL-Caltech

I’ll add that this good news comes on the heels of some slightly more iffy news: Three new near-Earth asteroids have been discovered, one of which can actually get pretty close to Earth, close enough to categorize it as “potentially hazardous”.

Now, don’t flip out about that. That’s a pretty wide bucket to put asteroids in; for example, this new one, called 2013 UP8, only gets to about 5.5 million kilometers (3.4 million miles) form Earth. That’s almost 15 times farther away than the Moon, so in real-world terms, this rock isn’t too big a worry. Which is nice, because it’s about two kilometers across, so we really don’t want it hitting us!

It’s avoided detection for so long because it hasn’t passed near Earth for a while; its orbit takes it out past Mars, and it hasn’t been well-positioned for viewing when it’s been closer. Its orbit is also highly inclined to the Earth’s, tipped by 48°! So even when it looks like it’s near us in a diagram like the one above, that’s only because the third dimension has been flattened; it’s a perspective effect.

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!  

The other two asteroids never get near the Earth, which really is good news, since they’re both roughly 20 km (12 miles) across! That’s pretty dang big; so big I was initially surprised they escaped detection this long. One, 2013 UQ4, is on a highly elliptical orbit and also goes around the Sun in the opposite direction of the planets. That is a sure sign it’s a burned-out comet. Its orbital period is over 500 years long, which may explain why we haven’t seen it before! It hasn’t been around this neck of the woods for a few centuries.

The other one, 2013 US10, is a bit of a surprise, because it is big enough to be seen in surveys. It has an orbit that takes it out past Jupiter, but is again inclined to the Earth’s orbit. It never gets closer than about 80 million km to us, which may be why it hasn’t been spotted before now. Like UQ4, there’s no chance of it ever hitting us.

[UPDATE 2 (Nov. 7, 2013 at 16:10 UTC): Well, this is interesting: 2013 US10 was initially classified as an asteroid, but now that's been changed to a comet! The new name for this object is C/2013 US10 (Catalina). It turns out that two new observations were added, and an earlier one was removed (it was mixed up with another object, apparently). When all the new data were crunched, it turns out the comet is on a very long, hyperbolic orbit, meaning this may be its first pass into the inner solar system. It's also showing a bit of cometary activity, meaning ice on the comet is turning into a gas and leaving the surface. This makes the comet brighter than an asteroid, so it may in fact be smaller than first thought (the size of an asteroid is based on how bright it is).]

So really, none of these three new asteroids is a threat. However they underscore the need for more survey observatories to go sniffing around the sky. I don’t like that objects that big can still hide from us.

These new rocks are a reminder that there are still quite a few out there, and we need to be ever-vigilant looking for them. It’s always good to know more about the Universe — science is pretty cool that way — but in this case it just might save the world.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Asteroid Watch on Twitter.

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