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A series of Doppler snapshots of the asteroid (101955) 1999 RQ36  (Source: NASA)

RQ36 is a 510 meter-wide Apollo asteroid, a group of near-Earth space rocks.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(101955) 1999 RQ36, a 500 meter wide meter could do quite a bit of damage

NASA and other international space agencies are slowly growing more concerned about the risk of a collision of asteroids orbiting the sun with Earth.  Such a collision could range from disruptive to catastrophic.  It was such an impact that was thought to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

María Eugenia Sansaturio of Spain's Universidad de Valladolid (UVA) has coauthored a new study that indicates that an asteroid discovered in 1999, named (101955) 1999 RQ36, has roughly a 1-in-2,000 chance of colliding with the earth in the year 2182.

RQ36 measures 510 meters in diameter.  It is among the largest of a class of near Earth objects known as Apollo asteroids.  Apollo asteroids occupy a close, circular orbit around the Sun, regularly crossing the Earth's orbit.  While relatively few in number, given their orbit they are among the biggest concerns for observers trying to predict possible collisions.

The new evaluation would indicate that RQ36 presents perhaps the greatest known risk to the Earth in the near future.  

Previously, the highest known collision risk was with the asteroid 99942 Apophis.  Apophis, a member of another group of near-Earth asteroids called the Aten group, was estimated to have a 1-in-233 chance of hitting the earth in 2029.

Since then, then the threat of a 2029 collision has been bumped to virtually nonexistent.  Based on further observations, though, there is still a 1-in-250,000 chance on a second pass in 2036, and a tiny one-in-three million chance  during a third pass in 2068.

Apophis only measures 270 meters, though, so a collision wouldn't be as painful as if RQ36 impacted the Earth.

Professor Sansaturio estimates, "The total impact probability of asteroid '(101955) 1999 RQ36' can be estimated in 0.00092 -- approximately one-in-a-thousand chance -- but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182."

He used two mathematical models to estimate the probability of collisions of various near Earth asteroid groups in the twenty-second century.  Of the objects he looked at, RQ36 by far posed the greatest threat.  The probability is still highly speculative as its based mostly on the effects of gravity to calculate a projected trajectory.  A number of other factors can influence asteroids' paths.

According to Professor Sansaturio, the early detection is critical as it gives mankind the time to prepare for a deflection attempt if necessary.  He states, "If this object had been discovered after 2080, the deflection would require a technology that is not currently available.  Therefore, this example suggests that impact monitoring, which up to date does not cover more than 80 or 100 years, may need to encompass more than one century.  Thus, the efforts to deviate this type of objects could be conducted with moderate resources, from a technological and financial point of view."

In the worst case scenario of a collision, mankind might be rocked, but would almost certainly survive.  After all, the asteroid that is believed to have cause the extinction of the dinosaurs is estimated to have had a diameter of 10 to 14 km -- at least 20 times as wide as RQ36.

The new research is published in the journal 
Icarus.





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