NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office announced it has been tracking a new asteroid that could potentially hit Earth on Valentine’s Day in 2046. Estimated to be about the length of a 50-meter Olympic swimming pool, the asteroid, known as 2023 DW, was discovered last month, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). Initial calculations by astronomer Piero Sicoli predicted it has a one in 400 chance of striking our planet.
While scientists with the ESA have placed this extraterrestrial projectile on their Risk List, a “catalogue of all objects for which a non-zero impact probability has been computed,” NASA has indicated there is currently no reason to alert the general public of the threat it poses. However, of the nearly 1,500 asteroids that are on this watch list, one thing sets 2023 DW apart from the rest: it is the only one to hold a risk rating greater than zero.
The Torino Scale, which is used by NASA to evaluate risks from space, currently lists 2023 DW as a level 1 threat, which means it is “a routine discovery in which a pass near the Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger” and that “current calculations show the chance of collision is extremely unlikely.”
The other 1,448 asteroids on the Risk List have a level 0 threat rating, meaning either their likelihood of a collision with Earth “is so low as to be effectively zero,” the object is so small that it will “burn up in the atmosphere,” or that it will result in “infrequent meteorite falls that rarely cause damage.”
In the event that the asteroid does strike Earth in 2046, there would be about a 70% chance it landed in the Pacific Ocean, but it could also hit the United States, Australia or South-East Asia, according to Richard Moissl, head of the ESA’s Planetary Defense Office. Should this occur, Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has pointed to the Tunguska event as a comparable outcome: in 1908, a similarly-sized asteroid is believed to have exploded in the atmosphere above a sparsely populated area in Siberia.
“The resulting explosion flattened trees over an area of about 2,000 square kilometers,” Farnocchia said. Moissl also concurred that an asteroid like 2023 DW would create “regionalised destruction” and not have a major effect on the rest of the world.
Though experts have said the danger posed by this asteroid will likely decrease over time, having already dropped to a one in 1,584 probability of hitting Earth per the latest ESA estimate, the possibility of a world-ending threat from above is always on the table. Thankfully, should an asteroid eventually come hurtling towards our planet, NASA has a plan in place to stop it.
Back in September, the space agency completed its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART mission, which involved shooting a refrigerator-sized spacecraft toward a small asteroid in the hopes of redirecting its orbit. Ultimately, the test worked, giving NASA confidence in its ability to defend Earth from potentially harmful collisions in the future with space rocks like 2023 DW. It also proved that one small push of an asteroid could one day bring one giant breath of relief for all mankind.
“All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson after the successful test. “This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us.”