This area will cover relevant news of the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including concepts and designs for mitigation. All opinions are those of the author.

21 December 2007

Follow on Tunguska Mars from Dave Morrison's NEO News

From Dave Morrison's NEO News (12/21/07):

NEO News (12/21/07) "Tunguska" on Mars?

Remarkably, the Spaceguard Survey has discovered a small NEA that might hit Mars, not Earth, Orbit calculations from JPL indicate that Asteroid 2007 WD5 is on a trajectory that will bring it close to Mars on January 30, with a chance of hitting (based on the current uncertainty in the orbit) of better than 1%. Only once (3 years ago) has the orbital analysis of a NEA indicated a higher probability of impact, and the target then was Earth. For about two days around Christmas, 2004, the calculated impact probability for NEA Apophis was better than 1%, reaching a maximum of slightly greater than 1 in 50. Of course, additional orbital data then showed that while Apophis would come close in April 2029, it would not hit. The same thing will probably happen with this orbital analysis of 2007 WD5. But those of us in the business of surveying for possible impacts must always consider the possibility of a hit, even if the odds are against it. Should 2007 WD5 actually hit Mars, it would have an impact energy similar to that of the 1908 Tunguska impact on Earth, making a roughly 1-km-diameter crater. This crater, with its freshly exposed ejecta, would be extremely interesting to study from several spacecraft now in orbit around Mars. We can hope that this might happen, providing us a new window into the martian subsurface -- but the most likely ending for this story will be a miss, with 2007 WD5 quickly fading from memory.

Below are two press stories about 2007 WD5, and another reporting on the work of Mark Boslough on Tunguska, which was discussed in NEO News for December 18.

David Morrison



By John Johnson Jr., Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 21, 2007

Talk about your cosmic pileups. An asteroid similar to the one that flattened forests in Siberia in 1908 could plow into Mars next month, scientists said Thursday.

Researchers attached to NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, who sometimes jokingly call themselves the Solar System Defense Team, have been tracking the asteroid since its discovery in late November. The scientists, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La CaƱada Flintridge, put the chances that it will hit the Red Planet on Jan. 30 at about 1 in 75.

A 1-in-75 shot is "wildly unusual," said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near-Earth Object office, which routinely tracks about 5,000 objects in Earth's neighborhood. "We're used to dealing with odds like one-in-a-million," Chesley said. "Something with a one-in-a-hundred chance makes us sit up straight in our chairs."

The asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, is about 160 feet across, which puts it in the range of the space rock that exploded over Siberia. That explosion, the largest impact event in recent history, felled 80 million trees over 830 square miles.

The Tunguska object broke up in midair, but the Martian atmosphere is so thin that an asteroid would probably plummet to the surface, digging a crater half a mile wide, Chesley said.

The impact would probably send dust high into the atmosphere, scientists said. Depending on where the asteroid hit, such a plume might be visible through telescopes on Earth, Chesley said. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is mapping the planet, would have a front-row seat. And NASA's two JPL-built rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, might be able to take pictures from the ground.

Because scientists have never observed an asteroid impact -- the closest thing being the 1994 collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter -- such a collision on Mars would produce a "scientific bonanza," Chesley said. The asteroid is now behind the moon, he said, so it will be almost two weeks before observers can plot its course more accurately.

The possibility of an impact has the Solar System Defense Team excited. "Normally, we're rooting against the asteroid," when it has Earth in its cross hairs, Chesley said. "This time we're rooting for the asteroid to hit."



By Alicia Chang (MSNBC & AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Mars could be in for an asteroid hit. A newly discovered hunk of space rock has a 1 in 75 chance of slamming into the Red Planet on Jan. 30, scientists said Thursday.

"These odds are extremely unusual. We frequently work with really long odds when we track ... threatening asteroids," said Steve Chesley, an astronomer with the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The asteroid, known as 2007 WD5, was discovered in late November and is similar in size to an object that hit remote central Siberia in 1908, unleashing energy equivalent to a 15-megaton nuclear bomb and wiping out 60 million trees.

Scientists tracking the asteroid, currently halfway between Earth and Mars, initially put the odds of impact at 1 in 350 but increased the chances this week. Scientists expect the odds to diminish again early next month after getting new observations of the asteroid's orbit, Chesley said. "We know that it's going to fly by Mars and most likely going to miss, but there's a possibility of an impact," he said.

If the asteroid does smash into Mars, it will probably hit near the equator close to where the rover Opportunity has been exploring the Martian plains since 2004. The robot is not in danger because it lies outside the impact zone. Speeding at 8 miles a second, a collision would carve a hole the size of the famed Meteor Crater in Arizona.

In 1994, fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smacked into Jupiter, creating a series of overlapping fireballs in space. Astronomers have yet to witness an asteroid impact with another planet. "Unlike an Earth impact, we're not afraid, but we're excited," Chesley said.



By Charles Q. Choi,
19 December 2007

The infamous Tunguska explosion, which mysteriously leveled an area of Siberian forest nearly the size of Tokyo a century ago, might have been caused by an impacting asteroid far smaller than previously thought.

The fact that a relatively small asteroid could still cause such a massive explosion suggests "we should be making more efforts at detecting the smaller ones than we have till now," said researcher Mark Boslough, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.

The explosion near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River on June 30, 1908, flattened some 500,000 acres (2,000 square kilometers) of Siberian forest. Scientists calculated the Tunguska explosion could have been roughly as strong as 10 to 20 megatons of TNT - 1,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Wild theories have been bandied about for a century regarding what caused the Tunguska explosion, including a UFO crash, antimatter, a black hole and famed inventor Nikola Tesla's "death ray." In the last decade, researchers have conjectured the event was triggered by an asteroid exploding in Earth's atmosphere that was roughly 100 feet wide (30 meters) and 560,000 metric tons in mass - more than 10 times that of the Titanic.

The space rock is thought to have blown up above the surface, only fragments possibly striking the ground.

Now new supercomputer simulations suggest "the asteroid that caused the extensive damage was much smaller than we had thought," Boslough said. Specifically, he and his colleagues say it would have been a factor of three or four smaller in mass and perhaps 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter.

The simulations run on Sandia's Red Storm supercomputer - the third fastest in the world - detail how an asteroid that explodes as it runs into Earth's atmosphere will generate a supersonic jet of expanding superheated gas. This fireball would have caused blast waves that were stronger at the surface than previously thought.

At the same time, previous estimates seem to have overstated the devastation the event caused. The forest back then was not healthy, according to foresters, "and it doesn't take as much energy to blow down a diseased tree than a healthy tree," Boslough said. In addition, the winds from the explosion would naturally get amplified above ridgelines, making the explosion seem more powerful than it actually was. What scientists had thought to be an explosion between 10 and 20 megatons was more likely only three to five megatons, he explained.

All in all, the researchers suggest that smaller asteroids may pose a greater danger than previously believed. Moreover, "there are a lot more objects that size," Boslough told

NASA Ames Research Center planetary scientist and astrobiologist David Morrison, who did not participate in this study, said, "If he's right, we can expect more Tunguska-sized explosions - perhaps every couple of centuries instead of every millennia or two." He added, "It raises the bar in the long term - ultimately, we'd like to have a survey system that can detect things this small."

Boslough and his colleagues detailed their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 11. A paper on the phenomenon has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Impact Engineering.


NEO News (now in its fourteenth year of distribution) is an informal compilation of news and opinion dealing with Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and their impacts. These opinions are the responsibility of the individual authors and do not represent the positions of NASA, Ames Research Center, the International Astronomical Union, or any other organization. To subscribe (or unsubscribe) contact For additional information, please see the website If anyone wishes to copy or redistribute original material from these notes, fully or in part, please include this disclaimer.

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