A space object considered “potentially hazardous” by NASA, about half the size of the asteroid that allegedly wiped out the dinosaurs, is going to zoom past Earth tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 16.
Named Phaethon after the Greek god who nearly destroyed the world, the giant rock careening through space is “a potentially hazardous asteroid whose path misses Earth’s orbit by only 2 million miles,” says NASA.
But astronomers disagree over what Phaethon actually is.
According to NASA, it’s technically defined as an asteroid, in fact, the first ever to be discovered by satellite. But it’s also the parent object that produced a unique meteor shower called the Geminids, something asteroids are incapable of producing. Other theories say that it’s a dead comet or a rock comet.
“So what it comes down to is that the Geminid parent object is a mystery,” says NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s fact sheet.
But one thing astronomers do agree on is that the object will be making a “near” approach on Dec. 16, passing within 6.4 million miles of Earth. That’s 27 times the distance from the Earth to the moon.
Phaethon is expected to come even closer in 2093—to within 1.8 million miles.
The object “measures 5 km wide, about half the size of the asteroid or comet that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” writes Dr. Tony Phillips, production editor of NASA Science.
For NASA to classify a space rock as “hazardous”, it must not only have the potential to make close approaches to Earth, but cause serious damage in the event of impact.
A meteor that didn’t make landfall but merely exploded in the atmosphere 18.6 miles (30 km) above Russia’s Chelyabinsk region in 2013, caused over 1,000 injuries and extensive damage to property, reports NTD.
The force of the explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor is said to have been about 400 – 600 kilotones of TNT, so about 30 times greater than Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to National Geographic.
Hubert Foy of Space Safety Magazine estimates that if a meteor the size of the Chelyabinsk one were to strike a populated city, the devastation would be horrific.
“The blast waves and sonic boom could have instantly destroy[ed] roughly 9,000 of 13,000 buildings, killed and injured around 5 million of the 8 million people in New York City. That would be a natural disaster of epic proportion, and the Russian meteor event demonstrates that such a disaster is real and it could one day occur in any city on Earth.”
Russian astronomers are keeping a close eye on Phaethon’s orbit. Scientists from the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University have published a video which tracks the asteroid’s travel path.
NASA also monitors objects that could come perilously close to Earth through its Near Earth Object Program. New PHAs are being discovered every month and still, there are tens of thousands of uncharted PHAs of significant size, according to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project. Best estimates are that there are 10,000 to 20,000 PHAs larger than 328 feet.
Whatever Phaethon technically is, NASA says it will pass a safe distance away from Earth. In fact, the agency is quick to point out that none of the PHAs on NASA’s threat watch list, called the Sentry Risk Chart, are currently worrisome, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But that assurance may not be much consolation, says Alex Filippenko, astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with Discovery.
“The kinds of asteroids that can extinguish much of the life on Earth and most of the species, come around every 100 million years or so. And it’s not a periodic phenomenon, it doesn’t happen every 100 million years. It could happen at any time. Just on average, roughly every 100 million years. So it’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s a question of when it will happen.”
But according to CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood, there is almost no situation in any foreseeable future where asteroid 3200 Phaethon will collide with the planet Earth.
“Any body that’s bigger than about 500 feet across and its orbit carries it within about 4.6 million miles of Earth at any point in its orbit is classified as a ‘potentially hazardous’ object,” he explained.
“Meaning over millennia—lots and lots of time—gravitational interactions with the outer planets, you know, other objects in the solar system might perturb the orbit enough that it could actually impact the Earth.”
“Now in the case of this asteroid, that’s not the case,” he concluded. “They think this asteroid—and its orbit is very well known—will never get closer than about 1.8 million miles of the Earth.”
Even at 6.4 million miles, 3200 Phaethon should be visible to people with access to small telescopes when it makes its closest approach on Dec. 16, according to Michael Mendillo, a professor of astronomy at Boston University.
Benefit of Near Approach
Citizens of Earth—enjoy your light show! The coming of 3200 Phaethon heralds the arrival of the Geminids meteor shower, which will light up the night skies in mid-December, peaking on the night of Dec. 13 and the morning of Dec. 14 with about 120 objects per hour, according to Space.com.
Most meteor showers are caused by comets—basically, ice-balls with rocks and dust stuck to it. The Gemenid shower is unusual because it comes from an asteroid.
The Gemenid shower is also unusual because it is extremely recent—in astronomical terms.
The first recorded observation of the shower was in 1833 from a riverboat on the Mississippi River, Space.com reports.
According to NASA’s Bill Cook, it is likely that 3200 Phaethon collided with another chunk of rock a few centuries ago, and over time, Jupiter’s gravitational field pulled the resulting debris into the path of Earth’s orbit.
Not all scientists are certain that 3200 Phaethon collided with another orbiting object hundreds of years ago. A paper published in 2013 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters says that, based on three years of observations from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, when 3200 Phaethon gets close to the Sun, the heat or solar wind breaks off portions of the rock.
3200 Phaethon gets closer to the Sun than any other named orbiting body, sometimes coming as close as 17 million miles—half the distance from the Sun to the planet Mercury. Its surface temperature reaches 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Sky and Telescope.
Scientists discovered in 2013 that 3200 Phaethon has a tail like a comet—but comet tails are produced by ice turning to gas. 3200 Phaethon’s tail seems to be dust pulled off by the Sun’s heat and gravitational field.
If 3200 Phaethon is composed of carbonaceous materials—compounds containing a lot of water and carbon—the compounds might get brittle in the extreme heat and break apart when tugged one way by the Sun and another way by momentum.
“Phaethon may be a breakup in slow motion,” Paul Wiegert, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, said at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, California.
Chris Jasurek from NTD contributed to this article.
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