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Close call: Asteroid nearly hits Earth

March 4, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
It was a close encounter of the asteroid kind earlier Monday. An asteroid came very close to hitting Earth, at least on a cosmic level. NASA says it was nothing to worry about. The asteroid missed earth by more than 40,000 miles.When it comes to earth-shattering disasters from space, no one does it better than Hollywood. But earlier this week, science fiction came close to being science non-fiction. Very close.

"A small asteroid, about 30 meters in size -- about a third of a football field -- passed by the Earth's surface at 41,000 miles," said Donald Yeomans, NASA.

OK, 41,000 miles may sound like a lot to you, but to asteroid hunters, that's considered a close call.

"An object of this size wouldn't be expected to come this close but every three or four years," said Yeomans. "It wouldn't be expected to hit but every 500 years or so."

Donald Yeomans is in charge of NASA's Near Earth Object program. He says if the asteroid hit a populated area, the explosion would be disastrous.

Photos show what happened when a similar-sized space rock slammed into Siberia a hundred years ago. The blast zone, says Yeomans, covered some 800 square miles. A good example of asteroid damage can be seen on the moon, and the Earth is no different. Every day we get pummeled with asteroids of various sizes.

"We have basketball-sized objects coming in couple times a day causing impressive fireballs somewhere on Earth, Volkswagen-sized objects coming into the Earth's atmosphere about two times a year," said Yeomans.

Of course the latest space rock was considerably larger. Yeomans says NASA could crash a spacecraft into a threatening asteroid, moving it just enough to prevent a collision with Earth, if it had enough preparation time. And that's the rub.

"We'd like a several-year lead way," said Yeomans with a laugh. "We'd have to give Bruce Willis a call."

Hopefully, NASA won't need to rely on Hollywood anytime soon.


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