Asteroid 1999 AN10, a mile wide lump of rock orbiting the sun, was discovered on January 13th, 1999 (hence the 1999 in its name).
There are untold numbers of these lumps of rock orbiting the sun, some more a mile wider, some less. Most of them orbit in a well defined band between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In recent years however, with the increased sophistication of our telescopes and monitoring devices, large numbers of ‘rogue’ asteroids have been discovered that follow eccentric, highly elliptical orbits that take them far from this well prescribed region of space, bringing some of them closer to the sun than the orbit of the earth and then sending them off into deeper space before they turn around and return to the sun again on their dance around the star.
Asteroid 1999 AN10 is just one of these countless, eccentrically orbiting asteroids, circling the Sun every 643 days.
What makes asteroid 1999 AN10 worth mentioning is that its orbit brings it unsettlingly close to the earth. Sometimes so close in fact that astronomers have calculated that could collide with the earth in 2039.
There should now follow a catalogue of disasters that would afflict the earth should this asteroid hit us – everything from tsunamis to earthquakes to black skies blotting out the sun for months on end. The end of the world as we know it.
However, instead, I’m going to mention that the asteroid almost certainly won’t be hitting us. The statistical chance of the asteroid hitting us (1 in 10 million) is in fact less than the statistical chance of an as of yet undiscovered asteroid hitting us. So that’s good news, or bad news, depending on how you want to look at things.
Asteroid 1999 AN10’s orbit will bring it into interestingly close proximity with the earth in 2027, passing us on 7th August that year. Estimates suggest that it may, at the extreme, come within about 20,000 miles/30,000km of the Earth’s surface – about a tenth of the distance between the earth and the moon. There’s no chance of a collision however.
Depending on how it passes the earth at that time we will be able to calculate the chances of a close shave in 2039. Even if it misses the earth in 2039, as it almost inevitably will, its orbit will mean that it will keep having close encounters with our planet for the next 600 years.
These close encounters, and those by other asteroids and cosmic debris such as comets, will fuel End of the World news stories for centuries to come, assuming that the world doesn’t get destroyed in the meantime.
People seem to have a craving for apocalyptic, millenarian, doomsday scare stories, so as the years go by I’m sure that the story of asteroid 1999 AN10 will loom larger in the public consciousness.
I’m writing these words in the first week of 2013: for some time towards the end of the previous year, 2012, the news was full of a different End-of-the-World scare story – the Mayan calendar prediction (The prediction that because the ancient Mayan calendar came to an end at the winter solstice, 2012, then the world would come to an end too). It didn’t happen, unsurprisingly. The world moves on. A new end-of-the-World prediction takes the place of the old one.
Here’s a cartoon about the day after the Mayan calendar prediction failed to occur.
News about asteroid 1999 AN10 from Nasa’s Near Earth Object Program