An asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool, 50 metres in diameter, could potentially collide with Earth 23 years from now, according to the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.
The asteroid, named 2023 DW, is currently topping NASA’s risk list, which monitors “potential future Earth impact events.” The agency estimates that the rock has a 1 in 560 chance of striking on Feb. 14, 2046.
Celestial objects that may be on a collision course with Earth are ranked on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, which assesses the risk of impact from 1, the lowest risk, to 10, the highest.
2023 DW is at risk level 1, meaning “the chance of collision is extremely unlikely” and the asteroid is not of “public concern.” But 2023 DW is also the only asteroid on the list to have a non-zero rating. So while the asteroid may not be particularly alarming to scientists, it’s simultaneously the most dangerous asteroid we know of.
Every other asteroid on the risk list is ranked 0, meaning the “likelihood of a collision is zero, or is so low as to be effectively zero.”
NASA says that its initial calculations — that 2023 DW will have a 1 in 560 chance of hitting Earth — may drastically change as scientists have longer to observe the asteroid and do additional analysis. The ESA predicts that 2023 DW has a slightly lower chance, 1 in 625, of hitting us.
“Often when new objects are first discovered,” NASA Asteroid Watch tweeted Tuesday, “it takes several weeks of data to reduce the uncertainties and adequately predict their orbits years into the future.”
We've been tracking a new asteroid named 2023 DW that has a very small chance of impacting Earth in 2046. Often when new objects are first discovered, it takes several weeks of data to reduce the uncertainties and adequately predict their orbits years into the future. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/SaLC0AUSdP
— NASA Asteroid Watch (@AsteroidWatch) March 7, 2023
Astronomer Piero Sicoli of the Sormano Astronomical Observatory in Italy tried his hand at calculating the risk that 2023 DW poses to Earth. He tweeted that he believes there is 1 in 400 chance the asteroid will hit home.
“Surely this possibility will soon be ruled out,” he wrote. “However, as an exercise, I calculated where the asteroid might fall if this possibility occurred.”
A map of his preliminary calculations shows that the asteroid could fall somewhere in the continental U.S., the Pacific Ocean, Indonesia, or just off the southern tip of India.
#2023DW. With just 3 days of arc, I found about 1 in 400 chance of impact on Feb. 14, 2046 (JPL 1/770). Surely this possibility will soon be ruled out, however, as an exercise, I calculated where the asteroid might fall if this possibility occurred. pic.twitter.com/ldlSYJMvMz
— PS (@Piero_Sicoli) March 2, 2023
2023 DW was first spotted by astronomers on Feb. 2. The asteroid is travelling about 25 kilometres per second and is around 18 million kilometres away from Earth.
Recently, NASA demonstrated that it is capable of pushing asteroids off their course following the success of the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission.
On Sept. 26, 2022, NASA conducted the world’s first experiment in planetary defence when it deliberately crashed the DART spacecraft into the space rock Dimorphos, forever changing its path.
A slew of recently released analyses in Nature show that the mission was even more successful than initial estimates, and scientists are optimistic about the future of the planet-saving technology.
Scientists conservatively predicted that the rocket impact would shorten Dimorphos’ orbit around the asteroid Didymos by seven minutes. After the test, scientists found that DART shortened the asteroid moonlet’s orbit by a full 33 minutes.
“I cheered when DART slammed head-on into the asteroid for the world’s first planetary defence technology demonstration, and that was just the start,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These findings add to our fundamental understanding of asteroids and build a foundation for how humanity can defend Earth from a potentially hazardous asteroid by altering its course.”
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