The European Space Agency labeled a 50-meter wide asteroid as the “riskiest asteroid known to humankind in the last year” because of its high probability to hit the Earth. But something has changed.
On June 30, 2022, the world observed the International Asteroid Day. But days building up to it were extremely dramatic for the space agencies across the globe because of an asteroid named 2021 QM1. This 50-meter wide asteroid posed a real threat of an asteroid strike on Earth. At more than twice the size of the asteroid that exploded on top of Chelyabinsk, it could have decimated an entire city. Further observations increased the risk potential of the asteroid to the point where the European Space Agency (ESA) labeled it as the “riskiest asteroid known to humankind in the last year”. We were even given a date for the strike — April 2, 2052. But after not being able to observe it for months, when scientists finally were able to locate it it recently, something was different about this killer asteroid.
The asteroid was first discovered on 28 August 2021 by the Mount Lemmon observatory in Arizona. It wasn’t out of the ordinary as new near-Earth objects (NEO) are discovered almost every night. But concerns grew as telescopes around the globe began reporting data that spelled disaster.
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“These early observations gave us more information about the asteroid’s path, which we then projected into the future. We could see its future paths around the Sun, and in 2052 it could come dangerously close to Earth. The more the asteroid was observed, the greater that risk became,” said Richard Moissl, Head of Planetary Defense, ESA.
The riskiest asteroid known to humankind became impossible to track
Getting into the asteroid risk list of ESA is not a big deal. Initial observations often come with a scope of error and after more data is gathered, they are removed from the list as uncertainties shrink and the risk factors come down. But an unfortunate cosmic alignment made it impossible this time. The orbital path of the asteroid was taking it closer to the Sun and from where the Earth was placed, it was not possible to track the asteroid anymore due to the Sun’s glare. Waiting was the only option ESA had. But there was another risk. By the time it got away from the Sun, the tiny asteroid could get too faint to detect.
But luckily, scientists calculated a brief window where they could observe the asteroid and make final calculations to know for sure if a strike was imminent or not. The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) was primed for this task. Using its 8-meter wide mirror, it was able to take an image of a tiny speck of light on May 24, which was the riskiest asteroid known to humankind. For reference, 2021 QM1 was 250 million times fainter than the faintest stars visible to the naked eye from a dark spot, according to ESA.
The new observations have now highlighted that the asteroid will not cross paths with the Earth in at least this century.