Bad astronomy | Asteroid Nereus will pass Earth safely on December 11, 2021

Over the weekend, an asteroid larger than the Eiffel Tower will not have an impact on Earth.

I am sorry to disappoint you.

Notice it is not the news you’d see if you took to social media this week or read a number of fish-packing sites that have been screaming breathlessly that an asteroid “bigger than the Eiffel Tower” “would break orbit of the Earth “, whatever that last bit means.

I even saw a TikTokker launch a video saying, “An asteroid could hit Earth on December 11.” He has six million followers.

I’ve known the asteroid for a while, and I really thought that this time, maybe this time, there wouldn’t be dozens of media outlets that deceptively exaggerate this.


Sigh. The image of a rocket launch, which looks a lot like an inexperienced eye to an asteroid burning through our atmosphere, really wins out, doesn’t it?

OK, here are the facts.

The asteroid 4660 Nereus is something like 300 meters in diameter, so a decent size. Its orbit takes it far beyond Mars to correct within Earth’s orbit. Its orbital tilt – by how much it is tilted relative to Earth’s orbit – is only about one degree, which means it can move closer to Earth.

How far? There is a term that astronomers use called the minimum intersection distance of the orbit, or MOID, which essentially corresponds to the proximity of the orbits of two objects. For Earth, the MOID of 4660 Nereus is approximately 600,000 kilometers. Think of him as the closest Nereus to us.

It’s close in astronomical terms, but in human terms it’s a bit of a hike. It’s a little less than twice the distance from the Moon.

But it’s that close can to have. On this particular pass, which will take place on December 11, 2021 around 2:00 p.m. UTC, it will be 4 million kilometers much more comfortable. It is a hair more than 10 times farther than the Moon. Ten times.

In other words, the chance of an impact this weekend is zero. Literally, 0.

What about the future? Good, NASA / JPL Solar System Dynamics site lists Nereus-close approaches for the next 176 years. He’ll get close again a few times, but each time he’s clearly a dud. The closest it will get during this period is 1.2 million kilometers in 2060.

Does that mean it’s okay never hit us? Well no. Asteroids are affected by the gravity of the planets, which can subtly change the size and shape of their orbit over time, and therefore also the MOID. An asteroid that we are going to miss now could possibly hit us in the future due to orbital shifts. How much we know depends on a lot of things, including how long we’ve observed the asteroid; the longer the temporal baseline of observations, the better the understanding of the orbit.

Nereus has a baseline of 40 years – a very long time! – in which over 2,100 observations have been made, so we can be very confident that it will not affect us for at least a few centuries.

However, because it gets closer than 7.5 million kilometers and is over 140 meters wide, NASA classifies it as a potentially dangerous asteroid, or PHA. This means that one day – in this case, in the future – its orbit could change enough to put it on an impact path, and if it did strike, it would be large enough to cause considerable damage.

However, that day is not today and will not be for a long time.

That doesn’t stop the disinformation machinery out there. Heck, he doesn’t even slow him down.

I was curious about the term “enter Earth’s orbit” used by several sites. But it’s weird. No astronomer would say it like that. We would say ‘cross Earth orbit’ or, more precisely, ‘the closest approach will be …’ I’m not sure where this phrase was first used – one site posted its article on December 1st. just like at least one of the others, and other sites have come later, but in fact many sites use the same wording a lot in their article copy. It makes me think they either deleted their content or used the same syndicated (deceptive) post.

As for that TikTokker I mentioned, later in his video – after talking about Nereus’ size and speed and how close he is – he finally mentions he’s going to be missed. But I wonder how many of his listeners got this far, and how many really absorbed this fact.

That kind of stuff really pisses me off. First, there are people with cosmophobia – scared of outer space – and they really get scared when they hear deceptive stories like these. It is a real phobia that they find it difficult to control, and that only fuels these fires. It’s cruel.

Second, it’s bad science. At best, it is misleading, and at worst, it is outright false. For the love of crime, don’t we already have enough?

It matters. The erosion of the public’s ability to distinguish right from wrong, fact from fantasy, has real-life consequences. I’ve been saying this for years, and it’s still true: There is a narrow path to reality, and once you exit, all sorts of nonsense seems plausible as well. If you want proof, why, .

It’s hard enough to keep our balance and poise on this path. The last thing we need right now – never – these are bait-focused sites that give people a boost.

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