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February 05, 2013

Asteroid flyby: Call off the space crew; no deep impact expected

Posted in: Movies,Science

Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) and Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski) race to safety as the comet approaches in the 1998 film "Deep Impact." (Paramount Pictures)

Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski) race to safety as the comet approaches in the 1998 film “Deep Impact.” (Paramount Pictures)

This post has been corrected. Please see note at the bottom for details. 

An asteroid half the length of a football field will come hurtling toward Earth on Feb. 15 — but that’s no reason to call on a team of deep-sea oil drillers or an international space crew armed with  nuclear weapons.

Although NASA officials said Asteroid 2012 DA14 will zip by Earth at “a remarkably close distance,” the space agency also said that there was no chance that the asteroid would impact our planet.

Officials were not nearly so sanguine in two of the best-known Hollywood films — both from 1998 –  centered on the theme of disaster descending from the heavens.  In “Deep Impact” it was a 7-mile-wide comet being battled by an international space team. “Armageddon” had oil drillers taking a quickie course in how to be an astronaut to battle a massive asteroid.

Luckily, NASA says, we won’t need to go to such extraordinary lengths.

“Its orbit is very well known, we know exactly where it is going to go, and it cannot hit the Earth,” said Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office in a video statement.

But it will come awfully close.

According to NASA’s calculations, at the asteroid’s closest approach, at 11:24 a.m. PST on Feb. 15, it will be about 17,200 miles away from Earth, or about one-tenth the distance between Earth and the moon. That puts it closer to Earth than the GPS satellites in geostationary orbit (22,245 miles above the equator) but still a comfortable distance from the satellites that orbit closer to Earth — like the International Space Station, which orbits at 240 miles from Earth.

Because there are almost no satellites orbiting at the distance at which the asteroid will pass, NASA said it is unlikely that the asteroid will cause any damage at all.

Even if it did hit Earth (which it won’t), an asteroid this size would probably cause serious regional — but not worldwide — devastation.

In 1908, an asteroid of comparable size to 2012 DA14 did hit Earth in Tunguska, Russia. The event  completely flattened more than 500,000 acres and charred 38 1/2 square miles of pine forest.

Devastating, yes. But not a “Deep Impact” or “Armageddon” situation.

– Deborah Netburn

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

[For the Record, 3:21 p.m., Feb. 5: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectlythat GPS satellites are in geostationary orbit. ]

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