The prospect of asteroids smashing into Earth might seem highly unlikely, but for astronomers like UVA research scientist Greg Black, it’s a scenario to be taken seriously. A large asteroid could cause catastrophic damage; asteroids have hit the planet many times in the past and may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Black, working with astronomers at NASA and other institutions, captured images of a small asteroid that passed relatively close to Earth on Jan. 29. The object Black observed, Asteroid 2007 TU24, is about 800 feet in diameter—considered very small and relatively difficult to locate in the vastness of space. The object was discovered only a few months before passing within 334,000 miles of Earth. (The moon is about 220,000 miles away when closest to Earth).
“While we realized that this asteroid was not on a trajectory to hit us, it did give us one of our closest looks at an object this small, which is difficult to observe,” Black says. “An asteroid of this size would be dangerous if it hit us.
“The fact that this asteroid could come this close but was discovered only a few months earlier illustrates the danger of these objects and the need to search for them.”