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Science

2052 impact ruled out as ESA counts down to Asteroid Day

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Security and protection

06/29/2022
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Briefly

Just in time for World Asteroid Day, the threatening space rock remained at the top of risk lists around the world for several months, and it had a real chance of colliding with Earth on April 2, 2052. The ESA Asteroid Group is now working with experts from the European Southern Observatory. have officially removed “2021 QM1” from their asteroid risk list as a result of expert observations and analysis of the faintest asteroid ever observed with one of the world’s most sensitive telescopes.

With Asteroid Live 2022 Day set for June 30th, we can safely say that the most dangerous asteroid known to mankind over the past year will not collide – at least not in the next century.

* What was it like tracking this asteroid? Get the full details in ESA’s engaging behind-the-scenes look at how European experts are managing asteroid risks in the official countdown to Asteroid Day live on June 30, airing at 10:30 CEST on AsteroidDay.org and via ESA WebTV.*

Deep

Beat 2052

2021 QM1 was originally discovered on August 28, 2021 by the Mount Lemmon Observatory, located just north of Tucson, Arizona. To begin with, there is nothing unusual about this discovery – about a dozen new near-Earth asteroids are discovered every dark night. Routine follow-up observations were then made from telescopes around the world, but they began to tell a more disturbing story.

“These early observations gave us more information about the asteroid’s trajectory, which we then projected into the future,” said Richard Moissl, head of ESA’s planetary defense division.

“We could see its future paths around the Sun, and in 2052 it could come dangerously close to Earth. The more the asteroid was observed, the greater this risk became.”

How asteroids go from threat to useless

It is important to note that orbit calculations based on just a few nights of observation are subject to some uncertainty, so asteroids are often placed on the ESA risk list shortly after they are discovered and then removed as soon as more data is collected, the uncertainties are reduced and the asteroid is declared safe. In this case, it was not possible.

Failed space alignment

Just as the risk seemed to increase, an (imper)perfect cosmic alignment occurred: the asteroid’s trajectory brought it closer to the Sun as viewed from Earth, and for several months it became impossible to see due to the bright glow of our star.

Orbit of QM1 2021 as it passed closer to the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth, shortly after discovery

“We just had to wait,” explained Marco Micheli, an astronomer at the ESA’s Near-Earth Objects Coordination Center (NEOCC).

“But to top it all off, we knew that 2021 QM1 was also moving away from Earth in its current orbit, meaning that by the time it gets out of sunlight, it might be too faint to be detected.” .

While they waited, they prepared.

Priority access to one of Earth’s most powerful telescopes

Dramatic Moonset behind ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), Chile

The European Southern Observatory (VLT) Very Large Telescope was set up and ready to go. Once the 50m asteroid has disappeared from the sunlight – and weather permitting – ESO’s VLT will focus its 8m mirror on the fading rock.

“We had a short time to discover our dangerous asteroid,” explained Olivier Henault, ESO astronomer.

“Worse still, it was passing through a region of the sky beyond which was the Milky Way. Our small, faint, receding asteroid would have to be found against a backdrop of thousands of stars. This will be one of the most challenging asteroid observations we’ve ever made.”

The dimmest asteroid ever observed

On the night of May 24, the ESO VLT took a series of new images. The data came in, and Olivier and Marco began to process it, overlaying subsequent observations on top of each other and removing background stars: this took some time.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope has captured 2021 QM1, which has topped risk lists around the world for months. This key observation ruled out an Earth impact in 2052.

Result? Positive detection of the faintest asteroid ever observed. At magnitude 27 on the scale used by astronomers to describe the brightness of objects in the sky, 2021 QM1 was 250 million times fainter than the faintest stars visible to the naked eye from the dark spot. (On this astronomical scale of apparent magnitudes, the brighter an object appears, the lower its magnitude value, while the brightest objects reach negative values, for example, the Sun has a magnitude of -27.)

Olivier was sure that this little spot was actually an asteroid, and Marco was sure that, given its location, it was our asteroid.

Finally safe?

Asteroids June 13, 2022 from Gaia

Thanks to these new observations, the trajectory of our dangerous asteroid has been refined, eliminating a collision with it in 2052, and 2021 QM1 has been removed from the ESA risk list. There are still 1377 people left.

More than a million asteroids have been discovered in the solar system, almost 30,000 of which fly near Earth, and more are expected to be there. ESA’s Planetary Protection Authority, NEOCC and astronomers around the world are keeping us safe by working together to let us know ahead of time if an asteroid is detected in its path of impact.

Watch Asteroid Day Live on June 30th

Tunguska devastation

How concerned are the world’s asteroid experts? What was it like tracking down humanity’s most dangerous asteroid? Get the full details in ESA’s 30-minute Asteroid Day Program live on June 30th at 10:30 CEST on AsteroidDay.org and on ESA WebTV.

Asteroid Day is a United Nations-sanctioned asteroid impact risk awareness day held annually on June 30th. This year he returns to Luxembourg for an in-person event after two years of living entirely in the virtual world. Asteroid experts from the ESA, from across Europe and around the world will gather in the city for an action-packed four-hour program of panels and one-to-one interviews.

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