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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 16:05 GMT
Earth's close shave
Torino BBC
Objects are categorised on the Torino scale
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A newly-discovered asteroid will pass moderately close to the Earth in the next few days.

Designated 2000 EW70, the space rock will come within about 1.9 million kilometres (1.2 million miles) of the planet - or about five times the Earth-Moon distance. Suggestions of a collision sometime in the future have been exaggerated, say astronomers.

On 9 March, the Linear asteroid patrol camera in New Mexico picked up a fast-moving object. A preliminary calculation of its orbit suggested it would make a moderately close pass in a few weeks.

At that time, there was nothing very unusual about the situation until the alarm was raised by the US astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope, that claimed that the newly-discovered asteroid "could threaten Earth at some future date."

Since then, however, astronomers have tried to put 2000 EW70 into perspective. "There is no evidence, to my knowledge, to suggest that asteroid 2000 EW70 poses any threat to collide with Earth in the near future," says Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK.

Orbit computations

In the astronomical world, Brian Marsden of Harvard University is the custodian of cometary and asteroid orbits and issues the International Astronomical Union (IAU) circulars that alert astronomers to important goings-on in space including threatening asteroids.

Asked to comment on 2000 EW70, he said that he was "not aware of any computations showing that any impact is remotely possible during the next several decades."

The asteroid may not be a problem but astronomers do have concerns in explaining the nature of the potential threat from so-called NEOs (Near Earth Objects).

In general, they want to give the public an accurate impression of the possible threat from NEO's but they do not want to set off a series of false alarms that would ultimately sour the public's and the politicians' view of the subject.

Impact warnings

Benny Peiser commented: "Science writers, web authors and net moderators are well advised to consult with the experts in the field before publishing misguided or alarmist asteroid alerts.

"Mind you, this advice is perhaps even more valid for some rash NEO researchers who have been prone to issue rushed impact warnings, often quite unnecessarily."

According to astronomer Daniel Fischer "the moderately close approach of asteroid 2000 EW70 to Earth could be used to raise awareness of these kinds of objects and that they really exist and are not just in the movies."

You will need a powerful telescope to see the asteroid. It will be about as bright as Pluto, the most distant planet. But despite its faintness, the rock will be so close that it will appear to almost streak across the sky. The asteroid will move across the sky at about one degree per hour, or two diameters of the full Moon.

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See also:

04 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
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