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Asteroid skims earth hours after meteor hits Russia

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-02-16

An asteroid hurtled past Earth on Friday, coming within an incredible 27,000 kilometres and making the closest known flyby for a rock of its size. In a disturbing coincidence, a meteor crashed into Russia’s Ural Mountains just hours before.

A closely tracked asteroid whizzed safely past Earth on Friday, the same day a much smaller, previously undetected meteor hit Russia, injuring nearly 1,000 people.

Live images from a telescope at the Gingin Observatory in western Australia showed the asteroid looking like a white streak, moving across against a backdrop of black sky.

The asteroid, dubbed ‘2012 DA 14’, passed around 27,000 kilometres (17,200 miles) above the Earth at the time of closest approach, about 19:25 GMT (2:25 pm EST), NASA said.

Astronomers said the object's speed and proximity made it a challenge to track, because telescopes had to be aimed precisely or risked missing it.

“We’ve never seen an asteroid of this size move this close to the earth before,” planetary geologist Ross Irwin told FRANCE 24 on Friday. “This asteroid was even closer to earth than the geostationary satellites we use for communications.”

At 45-metres wide, the asteroid wasn't nearly as large as the 10-kilometre wide object that saw the extinction of dinosaurs, but astronomers said it was large enough that, had it struck the Earth's surface, it could wipe out a large urban area.

“It would have been devastating near the impact site,” Irwin said. “This was a much larger object than the one which exploded over Siberia in 1908, which leveled a large area of forest.”

Chilling coincidence

NASA estimated that the meteor which exploded over Russia earlier on Friday was also smaller than the passing asteroid, at just 15 metres wide and 7,000 tons heavy. Some 1,000 people were injured when it broke up and fell to earth, shattering windows and destroying some buildings.

Irwin ruled out any connection between the two incidents. “These two objects were travelling in different directions,” he said.

Most of the solar system’s asteroids are situated in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and remain stable there for billions of years. But some occasionally pop into Earth’s neighborhood.

Astronomers have detected some 9,500 celestial bodies of various sizes that pass near Earth, but say they have probably only found around 10% of total traffic. “We can’t know what is heading towards us, particularly for smaller objects,” Irwin said.

If a killer asteroid was incoming, a spacecraft could, in theory, be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, Irwin explained. But the operation would need plenty of preparation time.

“Ideally you would want to know that something was going to strike the earth decades in advance,” Irwin said.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-02-15

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