Asteroid Big Enough To Wipe Out An Entire City Will Zip Past Earth On Monday

By Ben Wolford on February 17, 2014 11:14 AM EST

The NASA diagram below shows the orbit of an asteroid. It shows that today, Feb. 17, the the asteroid's orbit is coming at its closest to Earth. (Photo: Screenshot/NASA)
The NASA diagram below shows the orbit of an asteroid. It shows that today, Feb. 17, the the asteroid's orbit is coming at its closest to Earth. (Photo: Screenshot/NASA)

An enormous asteroid, big enough to take out an entire city if it were to hit one, is scheduled to zip past the Earth on Monday evening, the closest large asteroid encounter since a meteor pummeled Russia one year ago.

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That one, which exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, was about 40 meters wide, but it caused more than 1,000 injuries on the ground after it exploded with the strength of a nuclear bomb. This asteroid, designated 2000 EM26, is about 270 meters wide. An impact with something that large would be catastrophic to an entire region.

In this case, however, we're going to miss by a margin that's relatively narrow in space terms, but not really that close at all: almost nine times the distance to the moon, according to Space.com. That's about 2.1 million miles. But it's near enough to be a spectacle. The community observatory company Slooh is hosting a live webcast of the brush at 9 p.m. as the asteroid zips by at 27,000 mph.

"We continue to discover these potentially hazardous asteroids — sometimes only days before they make their close approaches to Earth," says Paul Cox, Slooh's technical and research director, in a statement. "Slooh's asteroid research campaign is gathering momentum with Slooh members using the Slooh robotic telescopes to monitor this huge population of potentially hazardous space rocks."

Cox is being fairly generous; scientists have no idea where most of the asteroids this size are. NASA researchers whose job it is to identify these rocks learned about the Chelyabinsk meteor about an hour after it hit — on Twitter. This asteroid, 2000 EM26, is actually one of fewer than 11,000 asteroids whose orbits are known. Most estimates suggest that there are 1 million more out there whizzing around the sun in an orbit that crosses the Earth's orbit.

In October, the United Nations formed a committee to orchestrate international response if an asteroid were known to be on a collision course. And in San Francisco, a team of retired astronauts is raising money to launch their own infrared telescope satellite to hunt for asteroids faster than NASA can with its limited funding. They're planning to send the satellite in 2018. And what if they found one screaming toward us? Easy: ram it with a nuclear bomb or use a gravity tractor spacecraft to drag it off course.

"Every few centuries, an even more massive asteroid strikes us — fortunately usually impacting in an ocean or wasteland such an Antarctica," says Slooh astronomer Bob Berman, who, along with Cox, will be hosting the live webcast of the asteroid close-approach. "But the ongoing threat, and the fact that biosphere-altering events remain a real if small annual possibility, suggests that discovering and tracking all [near-Earth objects], as well as setting up contingency plans for deflecting them on short notice should the need arise, would be a wise use of resources."

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