Using the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i, astronomers from the University of Hawaii’s Institute
for Astronomy (IfA) confirm that the chance of asteroid 2011 AG5 impacting Earth in 2040 is no longer a significant
Previously, scientists estimated that the risk of this 140-meter-diameter (about the length of two American football
fields) asteroid colliding with the Earth was as high as one in 500.
If this object were to collide with the Earth it would have released about 100 megatons of energy, several thousand
times more powerful than the atomic bombs that ended World-War II. Statistically, a body of this size could impact
the Earth on average every 10,000 years.
Click on image to enlarge
Orbit and current location (6/15/2012) of asteroid 2011 AG5. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The observations, using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (and imager), were especially challenging said team-member
Richard Wainscoat. “These were extremely difficult observations of a very faint object,” he said.
“We were surprised by how easily the Gemini telescope was able to recover such a faint
asteroid so low in the sky.”
The Gemini observations were made on October 20, 21, and 27, 2012.
Click on image to enlarge
Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph image of asteroid 2011 AG5. Credits: Gemini Observatory
In addition to multiple observations since the asteroid’s discovery, the team had also acquired images about two weeks
earlier with the University of Hawai‘i 2.2-meter telescope also on Mauna Kea – however, these data were all less conclusive
and required confirmation.
Gemini was able to make the follow-up observations rapidly due to the observatory’s scheduling
flexibility and availability of several instruments at a moment’s notice.
The updated trajectory of 2011 AG5, based on the Gemini data, has a factor of 60 less uncertainty than the previous
observations due in part to the increase in sampling points in the asteroid’s orbit.
According to a press release issued by JPL, while this new result has reduced the interest in 2011 AG5, the experience
gained by studying this object and conducting a contingency deflection analysis has demonstrated that astronomers, using
NSF and NASA facilities, are well poised to detect and predict the trajectories of Earth-threatening asteroids in the future.
The data for this study are being published by the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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