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Friday, December 04, 2020

Explained: What is Asteroid 2018VP1, which may ‘buzz-cut’ Earth before the US election?

2018VP1, dubbed the election day asteroid, has been known to planetary researchers since 2018, and NASA had played down its risk to our planet recently.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 28, 2020 8:43:46 am
asteroid 2018VP1, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Election Day Asteroid, November asteroid, what is asteroid 2018VP1, asteroid US elections, indian expressThe asteroid 2018VP was first discovered at the Palomar Observatory in California’s San Diego County two years ago. A 13-day observational arc followed, after which the asteroid was not detected again.(Twitter/@neiltyson)

Prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Sunday left social media platforms abuzz, after he said an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth may “buzz-cut” our planet a day before the US presidential elections.

“Asteroid 2018VP1, a refrigerator-sized space-rock, is hurtling towards us at more than 25,000 mi/hr. It may buzz-cut Earth on Nov. 2, the day before the Presidential Election,” Tyson said in a tweet.

However, the famed author stopped short of expressing alarm, “But it’s not big enough to cause harm. So if the World ends in 2020, it won’t be the fault of the Universe.”

The asteroid, dubbed 2018VP1, has been known to planetary researchers since 2018, and NASA had played down its risk to our planet as recently as August this year.

“Asteroid 2018VP1 is very small, approx. 6.5 feet, and poses no threat to Earth! It currently has a 0.41% chance of entering our planet’s atmosphere, but if it did, it would disintegrate due to its extremely small size,” the space agency had said.

What is 2018VP1, the ‘Election Day Asteroid’?

The asteroid 2018VP was first discovered at the Palomar Observatory in California’s San Diego County two years ago. A 13-day observational arc followed, after which the asteroid was not detected again.

When it was discovered, the asteroid — which has a two-year orbital period — was around 2,80,000 miles away from the Earth, according to Science Alert. This year, however, the asteroid could be as close as 4,700 miles according to NASA’s close approach database.

Asteroid 2018VP1: Should we be worried?

NASA has said there is a 0.41 per cent, or 1 in 240 chance that 2018VP1 would impact the Earth. Even if the asteroid does enter our planet’s atmosphere, it is unlikely to cause any harm on November 2.

According to The Planetary Society, around 1 billion asteroids are estimated to have a diameter greater than 1 metre. Objects that can cause significant damage upon impact are larger than 30 metres. The Chicxulub impactor, the celestial object that caused the sudden extinction of most dinosaur species 66 million years ago, had a diameter of over 10 kilometres.

2018VP1 has a diameter of all but 2 metres, around the size of a small automobile, and would likely burn up into an impressive fireball after entering the Earth’s atmosphere before reaching the ground. According to NASA, such an event happens about once every year.

As per NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Programme, asteroids that are 140 metres or larger (bigger than a small football stadium) are of “the greatest concern” due to the level of devastation their impact is capable of causing. However, it has been pointed out that no asteroid larger than 140 metres has a “significant” chance of hitting the Earth for the next 100 years.

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Is there a way to deflect asteroids?

Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off threats of more serious impact events, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth, or deflecting it off its Earth-bound course by hitting it with a spacecraft.

The most drastic measure undertaken so far is the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which includes NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera. The mission’s target is Didymos, a binary near-Earth asteroid, one of whose bodies is of the size that could pose the most likely significant threat to Earth.

In 2018, NASA announced it had started the construction of DART, which is scheduled to launch in 2021 with an aim to slam into the smaller asteroid of the Didymos system at around 6 km per second in 2022. Hera, which is scheduled to launch in 2024, will arrive at the Didymos system in 2027 to measure the impact crater produced by the DART collision and study the change in the asteroid’s orbital trajectory.

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