Looming catastrophes in the sky

Can we predict when an asteroid will impact Earth?

Objects with orbits that bring them near to Earth are potential killers. These objects, known as NEOs (Near-Earth Objects), are asteroids or comets, which we can recognize when they are in the vicinity of the Sun by their characteristic tail.

If these small heavenly bodies cross Earth's orbit while they are orbiting the Sun, it could lead to a collision – a so-called 'impact event'. Can such impacts be predicted?

Dust particles often penetrate the atmosphere and simply cause a harmless light – a shooting star. Less common large bodies leave craters in the Earth's surface or cause tidal waves when they hit the sea. NEOs of around one 3000ft or more in diameter can have global consequences, regardless of where they impact. The extinction of species that took place 65 million years ago, which claimed the dinosaurs amongst its victims, was most likely caused by the impact of a 6 mile-wide asteroid. It tore a 110 mile-wide crater in the Yukatan peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico.

The most recent larger impact event occurred in 1908, near the Stony Tunguska River, in Siberia. An S-type asteroid (of silicaceous or stony composition, hence the name) asteroid, which was around 100 to 200 feet across, entered the atmosphere at a speed of 10 miles per second and released its momentum several miles above the ground in an explosion. It destroyed a region of forest with an area of over 850 square miles - almost twice the area of LA, California.

However comprehensive forecasts are still not possible.

There are probably over one million NEOs that are larger than 100 feet in size; of these, over one hundred thousand are larger than 350 feet and approximately one thousand are at least 3000 feet in size.

The average period of time between the impacts of two similar-sized NEOs can give us a vague idea of the probability of an impact event occurring: 100 feet-wide NEOs hit the Earth around every 1 000 years and 3000 feet-wide NEOs around every 300 000 years.

The first successful forecast of an impact event was made on October 6, 2008 when the asteroid 2008 TC3 was discovered. It was calculated that it would hit the Earth only 21 hours later. Luckily it had a diameter of only ten feet and did not cause any damage – since then, some stony remnants of the asteroid have been found.

German Aerospace Center